On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz brutally murdered 14 students and three staff members and injured 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Cruz planned the shoot for seven months before stalking a three-story classroom for seven minutes, firing 140 shots from a semi-automatic rifle in hallways and classrooms.
Cruz pleaded guilty. That plea paved the way for a three-month sentencing trial that ended on October 13, 2022, with the jury voting 9 to 3 for a death sentence. Jurors said those voting for life believed Cruz was 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 sub-human who deserved a painful death.
In the days following the mass shooting, law enforcement and officers came under intense scrutiny after it emerged there were a series of red flags about Cruz. . As of the date of the shooting, Broward County sheriff’s deputies had visited Cruz’s home more than 40 times for calls ranging from “mentally ill” to “domestic trouble”. It was revealed that Cruz was a client of a mental health clinic because he had “dealt with mental health issues” and “voices in his head”.
How many more mass shootings will it take before we recognize that serious untreated mental illness plays a role in mass murders. Unless we provide treatment for these people before they self-destruct, these preventable tragedies will continue.
Unfortunately, we have compounded the risk posed by people living with untreated mental illness by shamefully neglecting them. When the large public psychiatric hospitals were closed about 50 years ago, the money saved was earmarked for community treatment and housing. Instead, states and the federal government raised funds to cut taxes and/or build prisons. The tragic result is that our jails and jails have become our largest mental hospitals.
The general public has the right to be protected from the consequences of people with mental illness who stop taking their medication or who are not treated at all. We should all be able to be sure that our children and teachers will be safe in schools. We shouldn’t have to worry about being shot in grocery stores, in movie theaters, in hospitals, in our churches, in our homes, in malls, or in a 4th of July parade.
It should be emphasized that mentally ill people who receive treatment are no more exposed to violence than the general population. Yet it is also clear that without treatment, some people with severe mental illness are at greater risk for violent behavior than the general population.
Nikolas Cruz will spend the rest of his life behind bars. His cell will be 9 feet by 12 feet and will include a bed, sink and toilet. For one hour a day, he will be allowed alone in an outdoor cage. Because Cruz is serving a life sentence, he will be last in line for education and rehabilitation programs.
The magnitude of the loss for the families of Cruz’s victims is simply unimaginable. Their relatives were all murdered by a deranged individual who should have been in a mental health treatment facility and was never allowed to purchase a gun.
People living with a serious mental illness may sometimes need a period of involuntary psychiatric treatment. We need an approach that balances the protection of their civil rights with the rights of the general public to be protected from dangerous people. Involuntary psychiatric involvement can be life-saving, both for the patients themselves and for those around them. Excessive concerns about civil rights have sometimes overshadowed efforts to provide safety and care to those who desperately need it.
People with mental illness need and deserve decent housing and easy access to care. They shouldn’t have to live homeless on the streets of this country. We compound the risk they represent by shamefully neglecting them. Not only does the treatment work, but it’s the most cost effective and humane thing to do.
Dottie Pacharis is the mother of a son who committed suicide after 13 years of battling 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 his family’s efforts to help him get treatment. As a result of her personal experience, she became a mental health advocate working to break down barriers to treatment and improve care for people with serious mental illness. She is retired from a law firm in Washington, DC and now lives in Fort Myers.
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