Chris Harper Mercer: A Preventable Tragedy?

Another merciless, senseless shooting, this time in Oregon. Another troubled shooter with three names. As details of the life of Chris Harper Mercer emerge on news outlets, I expect, sooner or later, to find out what often is uncovered: undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illness symptoms. Duh. And a family left trying to “handle it” alone. Duh, again. Been there – am there. Except we got some education and support so we could try to help our son. We are among the very lucky families. At the moment.

As mother to a young man who has been diagnosed, and is (reluctantly but consistently) in treatment for a mental illness (schizophrenia), my heart goes out not only to victims and their families, but also to the family of this latest shooter. His father, Ian Mercer, of Tarzana, California, told KTLA on Thursday night: “I am just as shocked as anybody at what happened today”.

Once again, the system closed its eyes to the need for support and left a family alone to cope.

Chris Harper Mercer was also, according to a NY Times article, close to his mother, with whom he lived. She reportedly had asked neighbors to help her get her apartment exterminated for roaches that bothered her son, who was “dealing with some mental issues.”  How else was she trying to help him? Or, like so many other stigmatized families with a “troubled” relative, did she just hope she could keep the situation quiet and keep things under control?

She obviously could not. Neither could Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, in Newtown CT. Once your child is a legal adult, the very few rights you had as a guardian disappear completely. But the problem does not. And tragedy, as we have seen way too many times, can result. Though this kind of violence is NOT the norm for those with mental illness, it is the most publicized result of the neglect of our system toward the 1 in 4 families left to cope with mental illness alone.

When will we ever learn?

When will we pay attention to warning signs?

When will we open our eyes to the need for treatment, and put a system in place to help the families left to “figure it out” themselves?

We are one of those families.  For the past four years, Ben has lived with us, because the system failed to realistically help him stay in treatment and rebuild his life.  The minute he started to succeed, budget cuts took away services he supposedly “no longer needed.” That is like stopping chemotherapy halfway through, with no follow-up.

We are Ben’s family and we love him. So much so, that we’re willing to let him “hate” us during the two most uncomfortable moments of the day: times to take medication that he does not believe he needs. We stay up late to supervise when he gets home from his job, often between 1 and 3 AM.  There are nights when I can barely stay awake, and cannot relax until the meds are safely swallowed and absorbed.

But it’s worth it. The stability of consistent treatment has helped Ben to rebuild his life. He has a job, friends, and a car and credit card in his name (!). He is starting to feel like he has a life he’s proud of. But he hates those two times a day…and I have no doubt that, were we not there, he would stop treatment immediately.  He has his reasons, one of which is he wants to take full credit for his “better decisions” lately. He does NOT want to hear that his good track record “seems to coincide” with times he takes his medications.

He melts down every so often, accuses us of controlling his life, of mistakenly labeling him “insane” (his word, never mine). He then says he wants to stop taking medication -with the best of intentions to keep succeeding, of course – but we have seen, eight times, what happens when treatment stops. It’s not pretty. Hallucinations. Withdrawal. Resistance. Mania. Police. Ambulances. Sometimes handcuffs. Hospitals. Work, school, money, friends – all can be lost so quickly . So we let him hate us, twice a day.

Ben has never been violent – for that we are so grateful. He hates guns, and loves people. So, no, I don’t fear he would become a shooter. But I do fear for his life, and his future. If we should stop managing his treatment (someday he might simply refuse, or we might be away, and – let’s face it- parents do die eventually…) where would he go? How could he function? Would his “case management team” even have an idea what is going on? Would he get in his car and drive in a distracted state?

Every family dealing with mental illness lives on a tightrope, with an anvil suspended overhead ready to fall – because there IS NO SUPPORT.

We cannot close our eyes to the people who live with mental illness. We cannot sell them guns. We cannot deny them treatment – not just medical treatment, but services and support. We cannot play ostrich and “hope things get magically better.”

According to a guest commentary, Treatment Advocacy Center, “The number of psychiatric beds in the US has been reduced in the last 50 years from about 650,000 to about 65,000—about equivalent to the number of mentally ill that wound up on the streets or in prison.”

Or living with their frightened, hopeful, families. Attention must be paid.



2 thoughts on “Chris Harper Mercer: A Preventable Tragedy?

  1. The deinstitutionalization movement has caused a lot if it. Maybe we should go back and rebuild the looming nuthouses of yesteryear. It’s getting more and more dangerous today. I believe it’s because they shut down the mental hospitals. Or practically most of them. Why not turn back the clock? Things were a lot more safer back when you had state mental hospitals…now.. instead of freedom they’re worst off living in the streets….And then maybe society will become less suspicious of eccentric people, so that eccentric people will have as much of a chance of making friends, getting married, and if living a normal life. We have to start trusting our neighbors again, instead of shunning them.

    1. Lyn, thank you for your comments, edited for some language and stigma issues. You make some good points, though I don’t think that those with mental health issues “all” belong in an institution any more than I believe that none of them do. Certainly it’s a complicated issue, definitely made worse by the closing of the psychiatric hospitals (what you called “nuthouses”) without following through on the promised support that was meant to replace them. Thanks for writing, and sharing your thoughts.

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