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After SIBA Shooting, Fingers Point To ‘Dismantled’ Mental Health System

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Sean Johnson

CBS St. Louis (con't)

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - It was uncovered last week that Sean Johnson, the man accused of opening fire at the Stevens Institute of Business & Arts on Washington Avenue Tuesday afternoon, had a violent criminal past and was ordered to take mental health medication. But far more troubling than one man’s mental instability are the words of St. Louis City Health Director Pam Walker.

Walker says Missouri’s mental health system has been slowly and quietly dismantled over the past three decades. “Just since 2009, the funding for mental health in Missouri has declined 6.7 percent and we rank 39th in the nation per capita expenditures on mental health services.”

Those cuts, according to Walker, make jails and prisons the “biggest provider of mental health services” nationwide. “And people aren’t going to get well there,” she added.

While insurance, for those who have it, may get you a thirty-day hospital stay, Walker says a system is no longer in place through which a person who needs long term mental health care can get it to protect both themselves and society.

“And we ignore it to the point that they commit a crime and then end up in jail. Then we try to deal with their problems in a situation that is not designed to deal with it,” she said. “We really have to do something about it in this country.”

Court documents allege that Johnson attempted to slash a taxi driver’s throat with a box cutter as the driver drove down Interstate 70 in 2009. According to the driver’s statements to the court, Johnson reached from the back seat and pushed the box cutter toward his neck, forcing him to crash the car into a median.

Johnson faced first-degree assault and armed criminal action charges in the Bridgeton incident but pleaded guilty in 2011 to reduced charges of second-degree assault and unlawful use of a weapon. He was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to take medication. That probation would be revoked in 2012 and an arrest warrant issued for Johnson.

Erin Barnhart, a lawyer for Johnson, said Tuesday that Johnson “was a productive member of society when he was taking his medication, and struggled when he didn’t.”

Unfortunately, according to Walker, the nation’s mental health system needs to be rebuilt before individuals like Johnson can receive the care they need.

“Until we get to the root cause of people with schizophrenia and bipolar and other serious disorders that can get worse if they don’t get treatment, we’re not going to solve this problem,” she said. “Many, many places are at square one because we have to rebuilt something we dismantled over the last thirty years.”

Meanwhile, a local doctor who treats those under court-ordered mental health care has a less pessimistic view. St. Louis University associate professor Dr. Fred Rottnek says that while the cases which don’t work out, like that of Sean Johnson, get all the publicity, the efforts usually pay off in two ways.

“One is getting people effective help for these underlying problems but also, in terms of overall, saving costs by reducing the incarceration population,” he explained.

Rottnek says the U.S. is behind other countries, especially many in Europe, in utilizing such court-ordered programs. But, he says, the record shows people who undergo the tightly supervised treatment have a lower recidivism rate.

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