Letters to the Editor

We can do better

Aug 23 2022, 7:10 AM

Over the past few days, I have read with horror, accounts of how a young man, in the throes of a severe mental illness event, was shot in the leg by a member of the Burlington police force.

My first question is: How many of the responding officers have been well, and expertly, trained in de-escalation techniques when dealing with a mentally ill person? And is there at least one officer on every shift who is well, and expertly, trained in de-escalation techniques? If the answer to either or both of these questions is "no," then we need to do better.

Further, I read with shock, that this young, 20-year-old man was not only shot while unmistakably in the throes of a severe mental health breakdown, but worse, after medical treatment for his gunshot wound, he was released from the hospital, charged with a crime, arrested, and taken to jail for his actions while in that mental breakdown. Such shameful and inhumane treatment of one of our most at-risk Vermonters!

How could this happen? Sadly, it happens every day, because of Vermont's wrong-headed, and limited, interpretation of the state's mental health laws; an interpretation that neither provides nor ensures the best and safest care for a very defenseless mentally ill person. Basically, Vermont’s interpretation actually prevents a person who is suffering from a mental health event from being admitted to the hospital against their will.

At the hospital, instead of jail, Mr. Johnson would have received the psychiatric care he so desperately needed, and most likely, still needs. Instead, it was OK, under the Vermont mental health laws’ interpretations, for Mr. Johnson to be sent to jail against his will, where he will receive no expert psychiatric care. How does this convoluted interpretation serve this vulnerable man?

This is wrong on so many levels. For far too long, Vermont’s mentally ill population has suffered unnecessarily because the legal interpretations deny them the care that very urgently need. 

How merciless it is to demand an understanding of, and an agreement for, hospitalization, from a person who is suffering from a mental health breakdown; a person who has lost touch with reality. It’s impossible. And how callous to expect it; to demand it. What’s worse, is that when that understanding and agreement are not forthcoming from the incapacitated patient, then that patient is sent back out into the world to try to navigate life through the lens of their severely diminished capacity. That’s not simply unfair, it’s horribly cruel.

Sadly, I can only conclude that in my native state of Vermont, there are those who believe that jail time for an acutely mentally ill person is preferable to much-needed hospital time.

These interpretations need to be fixed. We owe our most vulnerable population much, much better than this. And as Vermonters, we are much, much better than this.

Cece Wick

South Burlington