Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Sad Reality of Mental Illness

Like most of you, I was genuinely surprised to learn of the death of Robin Williams yesterday.

Although I make no claims of being his "biggest" fan, I grew up watching him.  His career coincided with my childhood and I can remember finding him wildly hysterical when I was younger.  As I grew older, I found him much more compelling as a dramatic actor than as a comedian and I rank "Dead Poets Society" as one of my all-time favorite movies.

Even though I may not have enjoyed many of his zanier roles as much as his more sedate ones, I liked Robin Williams.  I thought he busted his butt to use his celebrity to help good causes.  He had his personal demons, but at the end of the day there was something about him that conveyed he was a decent person.  More so than most celebrities in Hollywood, there was something about Robin Williams that made me, and many others, feel like we knew him.

I think that's why learning that he took his own life yesterday feels so shocking.  It is hard for us to reconcile the wild comedian with the man who took his own life while suffering from depression.

But it shouldn't be.

Robin Williams was suffering from the mental illness of depression.  It should be no more shocking that he took his own life as a result of it than it would be to learn that a person suffering from cancer has died of it.    Please don't misconstrue what I'm saying -- it doesn't make his death any less sad.  It just shouldn't be surprising.

I say this because it is my belief that the majority of people in our society pay lip service to mental illness, but they never really take time to grasp the reality of it.  We can nod sympathetically when we hear of a friend suffering from bi-polar disorder or depression, but do we ever truly give it the understanding that we would a more recognized illness?

Take a moment and ask yourself if you would give the same credence to both of the following statements:

"Bob can't come to work today because he has the flu," and "Bob can't come to work today because he is having a psychotic episode due to previously diagnosed schizophrenia."

Do you consider both of those sentences the same?  I doubt it.  Nobody would blink at someone missing work due to the flu.  However, a mental illness excuse, at best, would draw skepticism.  At worst, it draws fear.

As most of you know, issues of mental illness are very personal to me because of a heartbreaking experience that occurred a few years ago with a friend from high school.  And  earlier this year I found myself looking at mental illness from a more clinical perspective when I (unsuccessfully) utilized the Insanity Defense in my representation of a defendant in a murder case.

The death of the victim in the case was brutal and indicative of someone out of control of his "right" mind.  There was no motive, but there was explanation.  My client had extreme mental health history dating back for over twelve years.  He had been experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations coupled with homicidal and suicidal ideations since his early teenage years.  He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and had repeated admissions to psychiatric facilities throughout his life.

His most recent trip to the psychiatric hospital had ended in his release the day before he killed the victim.  Immediately after her death, he attempted to check himself back in to a hospital -- telling the admitting staff that people were trying to kill him and that he believed he may have killed one of them.  He asked that the police be sent to investigate.

In a trial in Texas where the Defense utilizes the Insanity Defense, the jury is not allowed to be told that a "Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity" verdict results in the Defendant being sent to a lockdown mental health treatment facility.  The Code of Criminal Procedure states:

"Art. 46C.154.  INFORMING JURY REGARDING CONSEQUENCES OF ACQUITTAL.  The court, the attorney representing the state, or the attorney for the defendant may not inform a juror or a prospective juror of the consequences to the defendant if a verdict of a not guilty by reason of insanity is returned."

In trial, the Defense has to prove an Insanity Defense beyond a preponderance of the evidence, meaning that there is a better than 50% chance that "as a result of severe mental disease or defect," the defendant "did not know that his conduct was wrong or was incapable of conforming his conduct to the requirements of law."

With the mental health background of my client, the expert testimony of the doctor who examined him, the facts of the case and the assistance of my friends and fellow attorneys Michael Edwards and Jason Truitt, I felt I had an outstanding example of a true insanity defense.  Judge Susan Brown gave us a fair trial and prosecutors Tameika Badger-Carter and Denise Oncken were above board and great to deal with throughout.

But the jury rejected the Insanity Defense.  My client was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison

Why?  I can't say for sure.

Maybe I did a bad job conveying it or maybe it is just sour grapes after the fact, but I don't feel that my client's mental illness was given the true consideration that it deserved.

I would surmise that the brutality of the crime was frightening and upsetting to the jury.  Something as intangible as "mental illness" could never excuse such a heinous act.  Unlike cancer, pneumonia, Ebola, or even the flu, you can't see mental illness.  You can't put it on a slide and put it under a microscope and confirm its existence.  There is nothing concrete to prove to a juror how real it is.

But it is so very real.  It isn't just a topic that we should pay lip service to.  It is something that needs much more than just a sympathetic nod that comes with no attempt at true understanding.

If it weren't real, then why on Earth would a successful and seemingly joyful person like Robin Williams choose to end his life?

Robin Williams did a lot of good things for a lot of people during his lifetime.  He was one of those celebrities that seemed to constantly be leading the charge when a cause needed assistance.

Maybe in his death, he can continue that legacy by bringing true understanding and assistance to those suffering from mental illness.


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Murray:
Please do not be offended by this comment - I have no doubt that you are a talented trial attorney, but I feel that you have missed your calling as a writer. So many of your blog entries, such as the instant one vis-a-vis Robin Williams, reflect not only a skill in maintaining the reader's interest, but also contain an element of sincerity. I am only sorry that you did not do some appellate briefing while I was at the office. I have no doubt that you could have written some interesting briefs. Look at the success that the late John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey) and Grisham have had with legal novels. Perhaps a few more trials and you will be ready.
Calvin A. Hartmann

Anonymous said...

I agree with Calvin's assessment regarding Murray's talent for writing and making things interesting to read. I first noticed it in the early '00's when he started writing play by play accounts of the conversations and happennings at a local beverage establishment on Wednesday steak nights. It was more fun to read Murray's accounts than to have actually been in attendance.
Bert Graham

Miscellaneous Crew said...

While the wisdom of Messrs. Hartmann and Graham should rarely be doubted, I think IMDB aptly placed you in the appropriate position.