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More Lessons from Kelly Thomas’s Beating Death

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In the weeks since the unconscionable beating death of Kelly Thomas by six Fullerton, California, police officers, personal accounts from Kelly’s parents and news reports based on official court records have detailed a personal and family odyssey that is heartbreaking and devastatingly familiar.

Kelly Thomas was ill enough that over the past decade he was deemed “gravely disabled,” and conservatorship was assumed at various times by the court and by his father. His own mother once felt compelled to obtain a restraining order – hoping it would lead to treatment for her son.

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That Thomas didn’t get the treatment he so obviously needed and died as a result is now the stuff of grief, headlines, recriminations and – more constructively – Orange County’s belated decision to at least look into implementing Laura’s Law, which would authorize court-ordered treatment for mental illness in California’s second most-populated county.

Among the lessons of this tragedy is its reminder that victims of violent episodes stemming from untreated severe mental illness are very often the victims of illness themselves. Our Preventable Tragedies Database only scratches the surface of violent deaths that shouldn’t have occurred, but it currently contains nearly 900 reports of individuals with mental illness being killed or injured by police officers. Those reports don't count the Tuesday (Aug. 16) police shooting in Oklahoma of Charles W. Hundley, 59, a man who suffered bipolar disorder and was off his medication and manic, according to his sister (“Sister: Lack of mental health resources to blame,” Muskogee Phoenix, Aug. 17). With the criminal justice system increasingly being treated as a mental health agency, we can only expect more stories like these. 

Also too often lost in the sensationalism of reporting violent acts by the mentally ill is the high incidence of self-violence they commit. Suicide is the number one cause of premature death among people with schizophrenia; an estimated 10 percent to 13 percent of those with the disease eventually kill themselves. Suicide is even more pervasive in individuals with bipolar disorder, with 15 percent to 17 percent taking their own lives. Partly as a result, the life expectancy of those with severe mental illness is 25 years less than the general population’s in this country.

Events like the mass murders at Virginia Tech and the January shootings in Tucson rightfully raise awareness that anyone can become a victim of with untreated mental illness. Our hope is that Kelly Thomas’s death also raises awareness that people with untreated severe mental illness are dying far too young everywhere, every day - and they will continue doing so unless they get the treatment they need. Orange County - and the rest of the country - needs better mental health laws and policies if this is ever to change.  

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