Yesterday, just a few miles from my house, a rash of killings left five dead and one critically injured after a man walked into a cafe and shot five people. A half hour later the same man killed a woman and stole her car. While I locked my doors and said my prayers of relief that I was at home, the police chased the suspect, later identified as Ian Stawicki. As police were closing in yesterday afternoon, the suspect shot himself and later died at the hospital. Today, information has come out that mental illness is a factor in this shooting. The Seattle Times blog reports that according to the suspect’s brother,
Ian Stawicki “changed about five years ago into a mentally ill individual who was ‘really angry toward everything.'” With this news, I cannot be angry at the man who killed so mercilessly. My heart goes out to Ian Stawicki’s family, who lost a son too soon, and to all of the victims and their families who lost their loved ones in such a horrific manner.
This event is so tragic because it’s preventable. In Arizona, a year and a half ago, a well-armed mentally ill man shot Gabby Giffords and many others in January 2011. After the shooting there was a national conversation around access to guns and mental illness, but little happened.
And now…this. Again.
As the daughter of a severely mentally ill woman who has been violent (with a knife), I am struck in particular by this event. I saw my own mother change from a normal person to one who was often agitated, angry, and at times very scary. Despite our efforts, there was very little we could do to help her. Washington has a law that states a person must be a “danger to themselves or others” to be committed. After my mom threatened her own mother with a knife, we were finally able to get her committed, several years after her initial (extreme) psychotic break. However, little more than a month after her commitment and her diagnosis (paranoid schizophrenia), she was released by the hospital to the streets. She has been without a home and without medication for the past 18 years. In November, due to budget cuts, she lost the few hundred dollars she received every month. My mother’s story is the story of so many people across the country who are mentally ill. And then there are those, like Ian Stawicki, who are able somehow to keep it together enough to feed, clothe, and even arm themselves. But two thing holds true for all: mental illness is a physical condition just like any other illness, and society has repeatedly failed these individuals and their families.
My son or daughter, because of their genetics, is much more likely to be mentally ill than their peers. This man could have been my son. And despite all my attempts to help, he could have easily acquired a gun and shot six people. And then, like Ian Stawicki’s family, my family may have been demonized for “not doing enough to help” as some are now saying about Ian Stawicki’s family. Let me tell you right now that dealing with a mentally ill individually is extremely difficult and at times almost impossible. Without the help of trained outside parties it’s a lost cause. Police officers know the danger of these situations first hand, as they are often harmed or shot by mentally ill individuals when trying to intervene. Incomprehensibly, services for the mentally ill are often the first on the chopping block when budget cuts are needed.
Mental illness is a tragedy that hits people indiscriminately. Like cancer, we can do little to control its onset, but we can treat it if we are willing to put the resources in the right place. We can also decide that the freedom to buy handguns is simply too great a societal risk to allow to occur with such ease. Why do mentally ill people have such easy access to handguns and semi-automatic weapons? Because we all do. I don’t advocate taking everyone’s guns away, but we need more limits. Something has to give and the mentally ill are not going away: mental illness affects one in 100 people, which means that in Seattle, there could be 6,000 people suffering here alone. And all of them have access to handguns. Will we keep the conversation going or will it just be another unpreventable tragedy until it happens again in another year?