How did we get to this place in modern history where we routinely take better care of our bodies, our teeth, our cars, our homes than we do our minds, our hearts, our souls? If we’re lucky enough to have health insurance, it probably doesn’t cover mental health. Maybe medications: pills to make us less anxious or depressed. Maybe. But treatment? Therapy? No, our national mental health plan is to turn our most tortured souls out on the streets. Let them fend for themselves. Let them buy guns, no problem there! Let their aging parents and other relatives do what they can. But as long as it’s not our mentally ill relative, it’s not our problem.
If you are that aging parent, like Walter Stawicki, the father of Ian Stawicki, who killed five people, gravely wounded another and killed himself in Seattle on May 30, you know what resources are out there for your troubled adult child: none. A 2006 survey ranked Washington state 47th in the number of psychiatric beds per capita. And involuntary commitment is well nigh impossible, unless your unstable relative is making imminent, life-endangering threats to another person. The Seattle Times reports that every month, between 15 hundred and two thousand people are evaluated by mental health professionals under the state’s involuntary treatment act. Two thirds of them are turned away.
So Walter Stawicki assumed, correctly, that there was little he could do to get his son the care he so clearly needed.
Meanwhile, people in central and south Seattle are still anguished over the May 24th death of Justin Ferrari, a Madrona dad caught in the crossfire of a gun battle on Cherry Street. And many are wondering: how did that killer slip away? Whoever he is, that killer slipped away a long time ago.
Just as we have become accustomed to ignoring the needs of the mentally ill, we have grown accustomed to the stories of Seattle children who turn to the streets, to gangs, to drugs, to meet needs never met at school or home. We hear “argument on Cherry Street” and think we know all about it: it must have been gang-related or drug-related, we say, shaking our heads. But isn’t routinely ignoring the needs of children in crisis just as tragic as ignoring the needs of the mentally ill?
I’m with Kaaren Andrews, a mom and Seattle Schools principal who, in an eloquent Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, asks us to stop ignoring those kids. Stop writing them off and then shaking our heads when another tragedy occurs. Maybe no one has come forward to identify the killer of Justin Ferrari because they fear it will just add to the misery: they assume any informant will be targeted not only by gang members but by the police.
“No one chooses a life of street violence,” Andrews writes. “We all want safety, happiness and hope.” Just as no one chooses to be mentally ill.
Quaker author Parker Palmer writes of the power of turning a broken heart into a heart broken open. Let’s not let these tragedies break our hearts. Let’s break our hearts open to compassion, to empathy, to reaching across all the streets that divide us and finding ways to help.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.