Spirituality for Today – November 2015 – Volume 20, Issue 4

A Darkened Room

Rev. Raymond Petrucci

A black and white photo of a dark room

There was someone in the garage – an intruder. It was the time of night when an elderly man would be looking to settle in a comfortable chair to watch TV or slowly drift off for a nap. Peter Cukor, a resident of Berkeley, California, was in his home when he heard a disturbance in his garage. He called the police and then went outside to his driveway in order to aid the police when they arrived. He never had the chance. Daniel DeWitt, the man who was rummaging around in the garage attacked Mr. Cukor and beat him to death with a flower pot. DeWitt, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was arrested and sent to a psychiatric facility. Next month, we mark the third anniversary of another mentally ill person who murdered six adults and twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. If he did not take his own life, he, most likely, would have faced the same fate as Daniel DeWitt. What can we do to prevent tragedies such as these?

In the United States, there are nearly ten million adults who suffer from a serious form of mental illness. Although a small fraction of the U.S. population, studies reveal that, if untreated, these individuals commit 8.3% of the violent crimes as compared to 2.1% by those who do not have such disorders. In recent history, catastrophic violent actions by mentally disturbed individuals have shocked the nation. Last year, Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania has proposed a bill for funding a program known as Assisted Outpatient Treatment. This expensive program involves constant, personal monitoring of high risk individuals living in the community. The person being observed must have a history of hospitalization and have been arrested because of actions directly related to their mental illness. Even as I write this, it does not appear to be a sustainable program, but it is an instance of somebody trying to do something about a societal problem that cannot be ignored.

In his December 2014 Time magazine article, Dangerous Cases, Haley Sweetland Edwards illustrates the complexity of this conundrum, "Theresa Pasquini, who co-founded Right2Treatment, an advocacy group in California, calls this a "moral catastrophe.' Civil rights advocates were correct in the 1960s to demand respect for patients' rights, she says, but their definition of rights was too narrow. 'Leaving people to sleep on the sidewalks and freeze and spend their lives in jail isn't respecting their rights either.'" Later in the article, Edwards writes, "These complex legal and ethical questions have shaken up the politics of the issue. Many liberals who once opposed any form of involuntary treatment on civil rights grounds now find the alternative – mass homelessness, incarceration and victimization – to be morally repugnant. They are joined by fiscal conservatives, who once decried the cost of government-run state institutions but now find it's even costlier to provide for large populations of inmates with mental illnesses." To the point and ironically, Newtown, Connecticut had closed one of the largest facilities in the state and, perhaps, in the country for treating and housing the mentally ill.

If mental illness affects one quarter of the population, it seems obvious that the Church needs not only to be aware of the ways that mental illness can strike, but also to recognize how many members of a parish are coping with it. I found it surprising somewhat to learn that many who are afflicted with a mental illness will turn to clergy before the approach mental health professionals. Mental illness tends to create feelings of depression and loss of control; this situation would cause a person to look for the help of a higher power. It is absolutely necessary that these persons find in the church a welcoming and compassionate atmosphere. Obviously, the involvement of professionals in the mental health field, most likely, will be required, but the combined gifts of all will bring help to the person. Church organizations such as Catholic Charities are wonderful resources in addressing both the issue of mental illness and the people laboring with the disease. I pray that clergy and seminarians will receive training in ministering caringly to those who come to them for help.