On Oct. 13, the headline in the Kennebec Journal read: “Petition targets group homes; Signers: Augusta residents unfairly forced to live among mentally ill killers.”

Residents and elected officials in Augusta are quoted as opposing  “the burden of playing host to mental health patients from across the state who committed violent acts” and the “unfair burden” that “undermines the safety of the community.”

People seem to be outraged because forensic patients who receive 24-hour supervision at Riverview Psychiatric Institute who have been living hundreds of feet away from local residences, will continue to live hundreds of feet from the same residences and will continue to receive 24-hour supervision.

The only difference here is the residential setting will be located off the grounds of the large hospital.

Although nothing has really changed about Riverview, the people who are treated there, the distance separating forensic patients from community residences, or the high level of supervision provided to them, the community’s response is classic NIMBY — not in my backyard.

Augusta was the home of Maine’s only forensic hospital since the mid-1800s, until a second hospital was built in Bangor.

The Augusta facility was built across from the Capitol so that legislators would never forget their obligation to care for people with mental illness. It has provided jobs for area residents and treatment for people in need for more than 100 years.

Were Riverview to close, to free Augusta of the untenable burden of people living with mental illness, thousands of pretty decent jobs — at the psychiatric center and at the community-mental health centers that serve patients released from the hospital — would be at stake.

The ability to find needed treatment for people in this community also would be diminished. We suspect that the community’s outrage about both the blow to the economy and the impact on public safety would be substantial and residents would fight to keep the hospital open.

The “insanity defense” has been an integral part of our legal system since 1843. It reflects a compromise between social justice and the law.

The insanity defense establishes that the law should not punish defendants who are mentally incapable of controlling their conduct.

Known originally as the “McNaughton rule,” the standard calls for the jury, after hearing medical testimony, to decide if the defense has proved that “at the time of committing the act, the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as to not know the nature and quality of the act being committed, or if known, that accused did not know what he/she was doing was wrong.”

So, using a medical example, if a man driving a car had a heart attack and ran over and killed several pedestrians, should that person be found guilty, imprisoned, never to be let out or be put to death? Or, was the act beyond his control?

According to Xavier Amador, a professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York, once people who have committed serious crimes bring their illness under control through medication and treatment, they are devastated and must learn to cope with a whole new set of problems, including guilt, depression and suicidality.

Over the last several years, Maine and other states have significantly reduced funding for mental health services. Private insurance continues to place limits on treatment for mental illness as though these illnesses are not real or not worthy of treatment.

Less than 20 percent of people with mental illness receive the care they need.

Augusta residents proclaim their outrage against group homes that provide needed supervision and protect public safety. And yet they fail to express their outrage about the failure of our health care system to offer immediate and appropriate assistance to people who succumb to treatable mental illness but are left to fend for themselves until they come to the attention of law enforcement.

We look forward to the day that the headline in the Kennebec Journal reads, “Petition asks for additional group homes in Augusta.”

 

Carol Carothers is executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness-Maine. Dennis Fitzgibbons is executive director of AlphaOne, a center for independent living.

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