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View Point

By Donna Bair-Mundy

Saturday, June 24, 2000

Who will help
the Uyesugis?

The events leading up to the Byran Uyesugi tragedy reminded me of a problem we faced in our own neighborhood. In the building behind us lives a woman with mental health problems. A few years ago, her problems became obvious.

Logo At first, we heard her engaged in loud arguments with people who weren't there. She appeared to take on various personalities -- some female, some male -- in her tirades. As her anger grew, she would come out and beat the ground with a stick, screaming in rage. She pulled down her clothing and urinated in the driveway. She yelled at neighbors.

Then we became part of her delusions. Laced with obscenities, her tirades were often directed at us: We were government agents spying on her, engaging in massive incest and producing monsters. As her condition deteriorated, we became increasingly fearful -- not for ourselves but for her child.

This tortured woman had a preschool-age son living with her. We would sometimes see her at night, lying curled up on the landing, crying like a wounded animal. Her young son would be trying to comfort her the best he could.

We were not watching idly. We contacted mental health agencies and called Child Protective Services and the police. I remember spending 20 minutes on the phone once with CPS, begging it to send someone to check on the situation. But no one was able to help.

Then, one morning, I saw an ambulance outside. It took the woman away. Within weeks she returned quietly, her demons evidently at bay.

The community was lucky in this case. No one was killed or seriously injured. But it easily could have been different.

In the case of Uyesugi, we were not so lucky. His demons were no secret. His friends and co-workers were concerned. His family desperately wanted to get help for him.

Yet, as the darkness deepened for this delusional man with an obscene arsenal of weapons, there was evidently no way, given the manner in which our mental health system and laws are structured, to get him the help he needed.

The result was a tragedy for us all. Seven men died.

The community-at-large has been clamoring for revenge for the terrible evil committed. They will have it. Even the mental health community has distanced itself from Uyesugi, fearing his actions will reinforce the notion that those with mental illnesses are dangerous.

These health experts are silent about the fact that he will probably never receive the therapy and medication he obviously needs in prison. This seriously mentally ill man will be put in a dark cage for the rest of his life, with little or no possibility of receiving treatment. He will fall prey to other prisoners contending with their own demons.

But there are a range of possible responses to mental illness other than the extremes of forced commitment or complete abandonment. There are a variety of creative solutions -- increasing the number of outreach social workers and mental health experts, providing structured living communities.

They require an increased financial commitment to our mental health programs. But the alternative is far more costly. While the numbers are difficult to pinpoint, we now have a horrendously large portion of our population in prison and a significant percentage suffering from mental illness.

We cannot undo the tragedy that has occurred. But perhaps the Uyesugi case will prompt a rethinking of our response to mental illness, and encourage us to place our resources in prevention programs rather than cages for those pursued by their private demons. It is imperative.

Donna Bair-Mundy is an instructor in the Library and Information Science Program in the Information and Computer Science Department at the University of Hawaii.

Xerox killings
Uyesugi verdict

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