Macadam Mason -- a 39-year-old Thetford man who suffered from epilepsy and mental illness -- died earlier this summer after being shot by Vermont State Police with a Taser. Mason, recovering from a grand mal seizure the day before, threatened violence to himself and others when he contacted Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for help; the hospital contacted state police. Troopers and Theresa Davidonis -- Mason's partner of seven years -- have differing accounts of what happened in the minutes leading up to Mason being stunned by Vermont State Police Trooper David Shaffer, but all affirm Shaffer lowered his assault rifle and then drew his Taser. After Shaffer discharged it into Mason's chest, Mason was immediately unresponsive and died on the floor of his home while Davidonis watched.
I've thought a lot about this awful incident because, like Theresa Davidonis, someone I love dearly wrestles with serious mental illness. His disability is sometimes virtually hidden and other times it is painfully apparent. Regardless of where he is in the relentless cycle of his illness -- in a high or a low or just trying to maintain some semblance of dignity and courage -- I am always in the same place: Worried. It is this low-grade constant concern that colors my reaction whenever I hear of another mentally ill Vermonter who has been shot -- either with a gun or a Taser -- by our state or local police. Societally, we still don't know how to handle mental
Taylor Dobbs, a journalist at vtdigger.org, reports that Trooper Shaffer did not have to complete 6.5 hours of mental health crisis training that is now required of all incoming state troopers. The training became mandatory in 2006 and started with the 82nd Basic Police Academy Class; Shaffer graduated in the 81st class. Officers who graduated without this mental health training were encouraged to receive it, but were not required to do so. A bill introduced in January in the Vermont House -- "Interacting with People Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis" -- would have required all troopers to receive additional mental health training before they could deploy a Taser, but it never made it out of committee.
A study published last year in the Oxford Journal Schizophrenia Bulletin supports the view that more mental health training for police officers can help defuse potentially deadly interactions involving mentally ill citizens. Two sets of police officers -- one trained in crisis intervention involving the mentally ill and the other not -- completed surveys that outlined several hypothetical scenarios involving a subject with psychosis. Those officers specifically trained in dealing with the mentally ill were less likely to escalate a situation by using more force. They were also more likely to perceive the use of less force as being an effective means of dealing with a person suffering from mental illness. All police officers and state troopers in Vermont must receive this training.
I have no idea what it feels like to knowingly and willingly enter a situation in which I may be killed or seriously hurt while doing my job. But I do know that the mentally ill sometimes appear dangerous to others when they are mainly a danger to themselves. Coupled with additional mental health training, all police officers and state troopers should have mental help professionals on the scene to help them assess complex psychiatric issues. This is critical -- both for their own protection and the safety of our mentally ill citizens. Many states have already implemented a mental health Crisis Intervention Team model, and it is past time for Vermont to do the same.
We must do all we can to ensure that our police do not use excessive force when dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis, but this particular situation highlights a problem that is larger than Trooper Shaffer or the police department. An investigation will determine whether Shaffer followed police protocol in his interaction with Mason, but we must remember that he does his job in the context of a larger society in which people with mental health issues are still viewed as culpable for their own illnesses.
Mental illness is not a personal failing nor is it rare. According to the Vermont State Health Plan -- published by the state's Department of Health -- each year one in four adult Vermonters "will have a diagnosable mental health condition or mental illness that has a negative effect on well-being and/or the ability to function in daily life." The department also estimates that 28 percent of mentally ill Vermonters wrestle with substance abuse problems. Given national statistics reported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it's likely that less than a third of those with diagnosable mental illnesses receive treatment. Regardless of your opinion about the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill -- which began in earnest after the Community Health Care Act passed during the Kennedy administration -- we can probably all agree that mentally ill citizens deserve to be treated with care and compassion.
We've come a long way from Ken Kesey's depiction of deplorable mental health care in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," but it is still socially acceptable to mock "crazy" people, and schizophrenia jokes remain a favorite shorthand for feeling pulled in many directions. We can do better; we have done better. The Brattleboro Retreat's own progressive history reminds us that we should be leading the nation on this issue, for the sake of both Macadam Mason and Trooper Shaffer.