It looks like New York’s mental health failures were partly responsible for the attack at a rabbi’s home.
After Grafton Thomas attacked five Hasidic Jews in Monsey, N.Y., Gov. Cuomo called it an act of “domestic terrorism," and feds have charged Thomas with hate crimes, citing web searches about Hitler and anti-Semitic comments in his journal. Those closest to Thomas say he was neither a terrorist nor a hater. They blame his actions on untreated schizophrenia, a horrific brain disorder that scatters the mind and disconnects it from reality.
The truth, of course, is that a crime such as this one could be motivated both by anti-Semitism and by mental illness. The motives aren’t mutually exclusive.
The Daily News reports that Thomas has a long history of mental illness and hospitalizations. Law enforcement said he was “rambling nonsense” when police took him into custody. His long-time pastor couldn’t understand why he wasn’t institutionalized, telling one reporter, “There hasn’t been anyone who has given a real solution to deal with a grown man who is dealing with schizophrenia, other than ‘Go home and call us if something happens.’”
That is certainly the case in New York, and it’s Cuomo who bears the brunt of the blame for the state’s failed mental health policies. He continues to close psychiatric hospitals, refuses to take the lead in amending New York’s involuntary commitment standard, and, like Mayor de Blasio, is surrounded by people who refuse to focus mental health services on delivering treatment to the most seriously mentally ill.
Many think of “deinstitutionalization” as a thing of the past. But it’s going on today in New York. Between 2010 and 2016, New York lost 1,741 state psychiatric beds. Many that are left are dedicated to criminally involved patients like Thomas has now become.
At the state’s South Beach Psychiatric Hospital on Staten Island and Creedmoor in Queens, inpatient beds are being renamed “transitional” or “outpatient” beds, and patients formerly required to stay in treatment are now free to avoid it. Local communities are seeing an increase in homelessness and mayhem as a result. If Cuomo allows New York-Presbyterian Hospital to move forward with its plan to eliminate 30 psychiatric beds at Allen Hospital in Inwood, the problem will only get worse.
Cuomo has also refused to follow up on his promise to amend the state’s involuntary commitment law. In his 2018 State of the State speech, referring to the seriously mentally ill, Cuomo stated, “While we aggressively protect an individual’s civil liberties, we believe in helping people in need.” Leaving the sick to “fend for themselves is not progressive, charitable or ethical or legal.”
But that’s exactly what he’s doing. Back then, Cuomo asked the audience to “tell us what law stops them from helping sick homeless people, and we will change the law this session.” But he never pushed to change it.
New York law still requires seriously mentally ill individuals to become a danger to themselves or others before they can be treated over their objection. The law should be amended to prevent violence, not require it. Cuomo should follow other states and work with the Legislature to add “grave disability,” “need for treatment” and “lack of capacity” standards to supplement New York’s “danger to self or others” standard.
Finally, Cuomo should focus his mental health department on addressing the needs of the most seriously mentally ill by making Kendra’s Law permanent and closing loopholes in it. Kendra’s Law is for a small group of the most seriously mentally ill who have multiple hospitalizations or run-ins with police. That describes Thomas. It allows judges to order them to stay in treatment for up to one year while they live in the community. People in it were four times less likely than members of the control group to perpetrate serious violence. They also found it cuts costs to taxpayers by replacing expensive incarceration.
We can write off this attack on bigotry or we can do the honest thing, which is look unflinchingly at all its likely causes.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News
DJ Jaffe is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institue, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., and author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill.
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