Dare to Ask: What to do when someone you know is
mentally ill and violent
By Phillip Milano
The Florida Times-Union
I befriended a paranoid schizophrenic, and he has accused my mother of saying
something bad about him. When I protested, he pulled a knife and threatened to
stab me. His parents told me he doesn't take his medication and drinks alcohol,
which makes him irrational or violent. Could his psychiatrist be held
responsible for his actions?
Tony, 41, Bronx, N.Y.
I have been surviving with a schizoaffective disorder 17 years. Your friend
is fully responsible for his own actions unless he is a minor.
Jim, 35, Knoxville, Tenn.
What a horror. You need to talk to a lawyer or someone at your local police
Laurie B., Boston
Can he be "sectioned" (involuntary committal)? In Canada ... a person is
committed if they are a "danger to themselves or others."
Ana, 37, Langley, Canada
I once went with a man with the same disorder. He was always making
accusations. The relationship was over quickly. However, he had a hard time
accepting it and kept calling me. It can be painful when you feel there is
nobody around, but unfortunately they bring their trouble on themselves. They
need a strong person to help them with a hand up.
Mary, Green Cove Springs
Generally, if you're diagnosed with schizophrenia or another serious mental
illness, you're still legally responsible for your behavior, said Ron Honberg,
legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Exception: Let's say the person really deteriorates. All states have laws
that let people be involuntarily committed if they're deemed a danger to
themselves or others, or are gravely disabled, Honberg said. Or, they may be
adjudged incompetent enough that they need a legal guardian.
So is that guardian culpable for someone else's violence? Not usually, but if
they knew the person was going to behave violently, could have prevented it and
did nothing, some courts have held them accountable.
As far as doctors, they generally aren't criminally liable, either. In one
case in California, however, a guy told his psychiatrist he was going to off his
ex-girlfriend, and the caregiver didn't warn the woman. After she was killed,
her family won a civil judgment against the doctor because the court found he
had a "duty to warn," Honberg said.
There's also the issue of psychiatric malpractice, but it's rare to win a
case against a doctor unless he or she makes an "egregious departure" from
accepted practice, he said.
All in all, the best way to respond to a violent situation is to get
caregivers and local authorities involved early on, said Julia Shimizu of
California, whose 25-year-old son is diagnosed with schizophrenia.
"One time, our neighbors had to call the police ... they came and were able
to de-escalate things because they had received proper training. That works
miracles. And it couldn't have happened if I hadn't created a relationship with
police in advance."
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Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
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