The Post-Gazette headline on Feb. 19 read: "Police: Richland Man Says 'Archangel' Told Him to Stab Grandmother to Death."
Nobody wants to talk about mental illness. Few things scare us more than the idea of a child or other loved one turning into someone we can't control or don't recognize. But after my mother's tragic death in February, I have had to talk to family, close friends and strangers about my son's schizophrenia.
The big surprise: I'm far from alone. Nearly everyone I've talked to knows someone who lives with a mentally ill family member. And everyone agrees that Pennsylvania needs to reform its mental illness treatment laws.
Some people know what happened to my family, and they ask how we're doing. In other cases, it comes out indirectly. A dental hygienist or barber asks, "So where does your son live?" and I reply, "Torrance State Hospital." I add, "He has schizophrenia."
"Oh my," they say, pausing for a second. Then, with lowered voice, "My cousin has that, too." Sometimes it's "my sister," "my wife's brother," or even "my mother." Then they say, "We're so worried about him. We don't know how to get help. How did you get your son into the state hospital?"
"Well," I say, hesitating, "he killed my mother."
After many years of gradually sliding into a delusional world view, my son became acutely ill last year. Allegheny County has a model program for pro-active treatment. Mobile crisis teams came to our house several times, and later, county medical assistance provided a services coordinator to visit my son at home. He was enrolled in an outpatient treatment program.
They all tried to persuade him that he was sick and needed medicine. He didn't believe them.
They showed him how to sign up for other assistance programs, such as for housing outside of our family home. He didn't see the need. He didn't know he was speaking or acting strangely; his brain disorder made him unable to see what was obvious to everyone else.
Current Pennsylvania law, written in 1976, requires families to prove that loved ones are a "clear and present danger" to themselves or others to force them into treatment. Courts often refuse to consider an individual's particular history or the circumstances that make his behavior or beliefs dangerous. Instead, they ask if there have been acts of violence or threats within the past 30 days.
In our family's case, my son was never violent until the day he killed my mother. Our choice was to shelter him in our house and keep trying to talk to him, or give up and have him evicted. When danger was finally "clear and present," there was no time for the law to intervene.
At the end of March, State Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland County, introduced S.B. 796 to reform the 1976 law. Among other changes, it would specifically instruct courts to take into account "the totality of the circumstances" when determining whether someone with severe mental illness is dangerous.
We'll never know how our lives might have been different if this bill had been the law last year. We never had a chance to explain to a judge how my son's delusional beliefs endangered my mother -- the professionals said it would have been pointless under current law. But many other Pennsylvania families deserve a chance to help their mentally ill loved ones.
Some of them are afraid that their daughter or parent will commit suicide. These families need to explain the "totality of the circumstances" that make suicide an imminent and predictable danger. It isn't fair to make them wait until they've witnessed multiple suicide attempts, never knowing which one might end in death.
Some families, like mine, fear that a son -- or a cousin or brother-in-law -- will harm someone else. It's unfair and unreasonable to ask them to wait until a violent attack and then to hope that nobody dies before the police arrive.
Many people with schizophrenia and some people with extreme bipolar disorder are unable to know that they are sick. If they were fully aware, they would never choose to die or to kill someone else. There's no way they would choose to murder their mother, father, grandmother or brother. When we allow their disoriented minds to choose non-treatment, we deny them a chance to live fully.
My son had hopes and dreams. At one time, he was a gifted student, majoring in biology. Before he grew ill, he loved his kind, devoted grandmother. The law let him down when it allowed him to become a "clear and present danger" to her.
Let's work to pass S.B. 796 and give our state's mentally ill citizens and their families a better chance at life.
Ruth A. Johnston is the author of the student guide "A Companion to Beowolf" and "All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World." She lives in Gibsonia.