Seven years ago, Jonathan, a 32-year-old engineering student from Ohio became convinced that his father, a local history professor, had molested him as a child. Jonathan had had a great upbringing as the oldest of three siblings, and had no concrete evidence that his father had ever molested him, just a belief that he couldn’t get out of his head. It haunted Jonathan until one day he took a kitchen knife, visited his dad’s home, and stabbed his father in the eyes and body, killing him.
Courtroom psychologists declared that Jonathan had suffered dissociative effects of paranoid schizophrenia; the court found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Now age 39, Jonathan has spent the past seven years in Ohio’s Summit Behavioral Healthcare Hospital undergoing treatment, and he’s about to be released back into the outside world.
BBC reporter Louis Theroux visited Jonathan and other inmates at Summit to examine the big question weighing on the hospital’s staff: how do you know when a criminally insane murderer is no longer a danger to society? Theroux acknowledges that people with mental disorders are much more likely to become victims of violence rather than commit violence themselves.
But he also cites the case of Eric, an older man who after four years at Summit, went out on a hospital-approved weekend pass. Eric stopped taking his meds and ended up shooting two random people at a bar. Now he’ll never leave the hospital for the rest of his life. These days, he pushes around a cart filled with stuffed animals and hygiene products for his fellow inmates. His care will cost the state thousands if not millions of dollars, but better to invest in his care than risk harming anyone.
The hospital tries to rehabilitate patients by talking through their feelings and histories in individual and group therapy sessions. The staff administers psychiatric medications and life-skills classes to teach inmates how to prepare for job interviews, how to cook and maintain an apartment on their own, and how to recover from alcohol and drug addiction. A team of clinicians, mental health doctors, and social workers help patients set goals and work towards eventual release from the hospital.
It’s an admirable system, but it’s also a grim reminder of how inaccessible mental healthcare remains for many Americans. Expensive insurance costs, a lack of mental healthcare providers nationwide, and the social stigma around mental illness prevent millions of Americans from seeking preventative care. The costs are high, but ignoring mental health can literally cost patients and other citizens their very lives.
Featured image via Marco Magrini