(April 29, 2014) “Bruce Williams couldn’t sleep. It was after midnight and quiet in his Portsmouth apartment complex,” write Janie Bryant and Joanne Kimberlin in Hampton Roads. “Quiet, except for the voices in his head. He'd told people about them – the way they shrieked for violence, his fear they'd win. Those voices had led him to kill before (“Pilot Investigation: Part 1, Can’t hold him,” April 27).”
Through the story of Williams, a middle-aged man with schizophrenia, Bryant and Kimberlin provide a glimpse into America’s mental illness treatment system and its many victims. The journalists describe a fragmented mental health care delivery model where people with severe mental illness, like Williams, are “patched up in hospitals and sent back into the community,” regardless of whether or not they are able to live successfully on their own.
In the case of Williams, he wasn’t.
On that same quiet night in Portsmouth, he walked into his neighbor’s home, number 433, searched for knives while she was sleeping and “moments later…left, covered in her blood.”
This wasn’t his first murder and it wasn’t his first contact with the mental health system. In 1989, after being released from his first stay at a psychiatric hospital, he crossed paths with a young woman in Virginia, an encounter that ultimately ended with her death.
Williams served nearly 18 years in prison but prison records leave little doubt as to his mental illness, Bryant and Kimberlin report. “He also left [prison] in the same condition he was in when he arrived: seriously mentally ill.”
Following his release from jail, Williams was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for several years, often set free before he was ready. In December 2008, Williams told doctors at a Norfolk hospital that voices were “laughing at him, calling him worthless and telling him to hit people or kill himself.” He was admitted and released 12 days later, despite his previous murder conviction.
On February 25, 2010, he walked into apartment 433 and murdered Linda Gay Carroll, a 64-year-old resident of his housing complex.
“If I am a danger to myself and to others, why would they put me on the street with [no] medication or after care,” he had written in his journal.
The writers wonder why stories like those of Bruce Williams don’t make national headlines and compel policy makers to change laws. “Unlike a Seung-Hui Cho or an Adam Lanza, Bruce Williams killed one person at a time. Unlike a Gus Deeds, he’s a nobody who attacked unknowns.”
Even though the majority of people with severe mental illness are not violent, it shouldn’t take a mass murder, or even one murder to compel policy makers to change laws that facilitate access to treatment.
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