Guest column: Untreated serious mental illness a factor in mass murders

Dottie Pacharis
Dottie Pacharis

On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz brutally murdered 14 students and three staff members and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Cruz planned the shooting for seven months before he stalked a three-story classroom building for seven minutes, firing 140 shots with a semiautomatic rifle down hallways and into classrooms.

Cruz pleaded guilty. That plea set the stage for a three-month penalty trial that ended October 13, 2022, with the jury voting 9-3 for a death sentence. Jurors said those voting for life believed Cruz is mentally ill and should be spared. Under Florida law, a death sentence requires unanimity.

Cruz’s sentence is life without parole. Angry family members of the 17 victims spent two days berating Cruz as evil, a coward, a monster, and a subhuman who deserved a painful death.

In the days following the mass shooting, law enforcement agencies and officers fell under scrutiny after it emerged that there were a series of red flags about Cruz. By the date of the shooting, Broward County sheriff’s deputies had been to the Cruz home more than 40 times for calls that included anything from “mentally ill person” to “domestic disturbance.” It was revealed that Cruz was a client at a mental health clinic because he had been “dealing with mental health issues” and “voices in his head.”

Annika Dworet holds a photo of her son, Nicholas, as she and her husband, Mitch, take the stand to give their witness impact statements during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. Nicholas was killed, and the Dworet’s other son, Alexander, was injured in the 2018 shootings. Cruz previously pleaded guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings.
Annika Dworet holds a photo of her son, Nicholas, as she and her husband, Mitch, take the stand to give their witness impact statements during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. Nicholas was killed, and the Dworet’s other son, Alexander, was injured in the 2018 shootings. Cruz previously pleaded guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings.

Just how many more mass shootings will it take before we acknowledge that untreated serious mental illness plays a factor in mass murders. Unless we provide treatment for these people before they self-destruct, these preventable tragedies will continue.

Sadly, we have compounded the risk people living with untreated mental illness pose by shamefully neglecting them. When the big state psychiatric hospitals were closed some 50 years ago, the money saved was meant to go to community treatment and housing. Instead, the states and federal government pulled funds to reduce taxes and/or build prisons. The tragic result  is that our jails and prisons have become our largest mental hospitals.

The general public has the right to be protected from the consequences of mentally ill individuals who are either off their medications or not being treated at all. We should all be able to feel confident that our kids and teachers will be safe in schools. We should not have to worry about being shot in grocery stores, in movie theaters, in hospitals, in our churches, in our homes, in shopping centers or during a Fourth of July parade.

It should be emphasized that mentally ill patients who are receiving treatment are no more at risk for violence than the general population. Yet, it is also clear that without treatment some seriously mentally ill people are at greater risk for violent behavior than the general population.

People attend a candlelit memorial service in February 2018 for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people.
People attend a candlelit memorial service in February 2018 for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people.

Nikolas Cruz will spend the remainder of his life behind bars. His cell will be 9 feet by 12 feet with a bed, sink and toilet. For one hour a day, he will be allowed alone into an outdoor cage. Because Cruz is serving a life sentence, he will be last in line for education and rehabilitation programs.

The scale of loss for the families of Cruz’s victims is just unimaginable. Their loved ones were all murdered by a deranged individual who should have been in a mental health treatment facility and never allowed to purchase a gun.

People living with serious mental illness may occasionally require a period of involuntary psychiatric treatment. We need an approach that balances their civil rights protection with the rights of the general public to be protected from dangerous people. Psychiatric involuntary commitment can be lifesaving, both for patients themselves and for those around them. Excessive concern about civil rights has sometimes eclipsed efforts to provide safety and care for those who desperately need them.

Mentally ill people need and deserve a decent place to live and easy access to care. They should not have to live homeless on the streets in this country. We compound the risk they pose by shamefully neglecting them. Not only does treatment work, it is the most cost-effective and humane thing to do.

Dottie Pacharis is the mother of a son who took his life after a 13-year struggle with mental illness. She is the author of "Mind on the Run: A Bipolar Chronicle," a book about her son’s struggle with bipolar disorder and her family’s efforts to help him obtain treatment. As a result of her personal experience, she has become a mental health advocate working to eliminate barriers to treatment and improve the care for individuals suffering from severe mental illness. She is retired from a law firm in Washington, D.C. and now lives in Fort Myers.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Untreated serious mental illness a factor in mass murders