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Originally published January 5, 2013 at 4:01 PM | Page modified January 7, 2013 at 3:03 PM

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Op-ed: Mental illness and violence — what must change in Washington state

We’re in denial about the connection between mental illness and the shootings at the school in Newtown, Conn., the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and Cafe Racer in Seattle, writes guest columnist Walt Stawicki.

Special to The Times

In May, the author’s son, Ian Stawicki, shot and killed four people at Cafe Racer and one near Town Hall before taking his own life.

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LAST year more than 100 people were killed or wounded by rampaging assailants with reported mental-health issues. This does not include those who killed family members, who numbered 1,400 last year, or 13,000 suicides by the mentally ill. Those are not reported as rampage incidents.

Yet through all this we continue to hear that people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population.

That fact is at odds with the reality that families and intimates of those who finally become spree killers live with constantly. It is no help at all to those bearing the highly probable event coming today, tomorrow, next month, or next year. Most spree shooters do have mental illness, and they use firearms.

We’re in denial about the connection between mental illness and the shootings at the school in Newtown, Conn., the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and Cafe Racer in Seattle. These statistics suggest that half or two-thirds of spree shooters were often formally diagnosed, formerly hospitalized, or had shown rage, aggression, paranoia and/or delusional thinking.

If half to two-thirds does not suggest a pattern, what can? Would it be suggested by the extensive statements of family members who lived with the emergent dangers?

Most states base their interventions on imminent-danger laws, which give officers the right to detain someone who poses a danger at that moment. Only a few states like New York (Kendra’s Law, 1999), California (Laura’s Law, 2002) and Washington are trying to intervene at an earlier stage, under emergent-danger laws.

In most cases, families see something coming. Even though we may be afraid of what our loved ones may do, we have learned that the system is not going to help until it’s time for ambulances and body bags.

Tracking emerging dangers is supposed to change that. It allows tracking to begin with a referral from family or friends and is based on prior incidents, reported or not.

Emergent-danger laws are supposed to provide an opportunity for earlier intervention for people with a history of mental illness. It does. And it doesn’t.

It can’t work when no one knows about the process for intervention in emergent situations. I found out about the resources only a month or more after my son’s emergent issues became reality at Cafe Racer, Town Hall and a quiet West Seattle street. We had seen the person who was our beloved son and his hold on reality slipping away.

What we have in King County does not work now, because deputies have failed to mention it to families I’ve heard from, even though a goodly percentage have gone through the King County Sheriff’s crisis-response training. It doesn’t work when families are reluctant to call for police. Too many have had, or know of, what can go horribly wrong.

The emergent-danger law and opportunity for a family to work through a “designated mental-health professional” and make a case for court intervention exists, but to my knowledge has never been properly introduced and actively publicized to the people of Washington state. The program has appeared in the small print and passing notices.

We must let people know what is available with a message as simple as, “Is a mental-health disaster building in your family? Intervention can start NOW.” If you have a family member who you fear poses an emergent danger to him or herself or others, the clock is already running. Do not just wait and pray.

Please call the Crisis Clinic at 206-461-3222. If you think you just need information today, call the King County Crisis & Commitment Services office at 206-263-9200.

The first and simplest action to take is to put the information where it is readily seen. My proposal is that someone step up and fund signs on our buses and rent billboard space.

At the very least, police officers and sheriff deputies should carry printed cards they can leave with families who report domestic disturbances.

We must continue to advocate for changes in the procedures and push for lower intervention criteria by the state. We must ensure funding for follow-up treatment is available. This has already shown a track record for saving lives and, yes, even money in other states. We must advocate and legislate assisted outpatient treatment, which allows people with brain disorders to live in the community and requires them to comply with treatment. New York knows it works and saves both money and lives.

We must insist that the system change its focus to the most difficult and dangerous and even forgo the minimally debilitated. As D.J. Jaffe, founder of MentalIllnessPolicy.org, says: “There are ways to know which mentally ill individuals become or are likely to become violent.“

We must act on that hope so the system works for those who live with the next spree killers. We must, if we are to prevent future shootings, if we are to help those future headline makers. We must, if we truly care for the ill and their own futures. We must, if we truly care for one another and our future.

Walt Stawicki has sold insurance, driven a taxi, worked in metal trades and been self-employed. He has two surviving children.

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