Updated: Mar 17, 2020
I am a Jew and a physician who specializes in psychiatry. I couldn’t help but notice in reading the coverage of the “Hannukah Stabber” in almost every news outlet, including NPR‘s first story (which was later edited) that there is something significant missing.
Interestingly, there is no mention of his significant history of severe mental illness (I did a little digging, his last hearing for conservatorship was May 19th). He has a long, documented history of schizophrenia, paranoid type. Why does this matter? Because it is the first thing proposed when a white shooter goes on a rampage, even though there often is little to no evidence to support this. Here there is even a legal trail in the mental health courts but even NPR ignores it? Dare we extend alternative explanations for people of color? Presumably not. And maybe now it might, just might, explain why black men make up 40% of those incarcerated but only 13% of the population. Doesn’t seem like anybody, including the ‘unbiased media’ can see beyond two dimensions, black and white.
What else is different about this story? As awful as this was, why weren’t there a room full of fatalities? Because he didn’t have a firearm. He had a machete. In New York State as of 2013, those with severe illness cannot own firearms. NYS, per 2013 NYS SAFE Act.
Hmm. Maybe gun laws do work? Too bad I have to ask that question, not the reporters.
What we need is to stop being “enraged” and holding up signs and instead go to DC and lobby for enforcement of the MH parity law. Ask your senator why the mentally ill are six times more likely to be incarcerated than in a hospital bed? (Answer: we have almost no hospital beds left in the community).
We need better psychiatric care for those who are ill like this man who represents the thousands and thousands I have cared for who have delusions of hate against a group, Jews included, because they have an organic, severe neuropsychiatric illness, schizophrenia, affecting the dopaminergic type 2 receptors in their frontal lobes. Their brains will shrink more than yours or mine will in 20 years—that is how damaging schizophrenia is to the brain. They’re not actually “evil” and as a physician and a Jew, I deeply resent the portrayal of this man from this perspective given what I easily identified about his mental health history.
We as a society have actually failed him and in turn those who were harmed. We let this man not just fall through the cracks, he spiralled. And society looked the other way. That is where we need to focus our gaze. What happened from May 19th when the judge decided he didn’t need involuntary medications any longer? Why was that decided despite his family’s urging? How did that process fail?
Without that, society will continue to lock away and hide the key for those who comprise what I call, the “invisible class”. They now make up 30% of the prison population in this nation—the largest system in the world by the way.
I can tell you as a previous Chief Psychiatrist at the California Department Corrections, we have had no choice but to build licensed psychiatric facilities inside prisons— more than one sometimes at a given facility like CIW the one I was assigned to—to care for these patients whose ultimate safety net has become prison.
At least this man was not able to use a firearm and end the lives of others, although those lives are forever changed—physically and emotionallHe will finally get treatment but what a tremendous cost was paid—much higher than had he been treated properly in the community. And now that he will be locked away, are we any safer? No, we are not. He is one of the many we don’t see until we have to see them. It behooves us to learn how to prevent what is preventable in lieu of labeling something with a unidimensional stamp and filing it away. #antisemitism #mentalhealthparity #sandyhook #hannukahstabbing #mediabias
Torie Shatzmiller Sepah, MD
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology