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Abandoned by sanity, victimized by ignorance

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002


The question is simple.

When will we understand that mental illness is a condition, not a crime?

If we understood it, we would know that Andrea Yates is one of 2-million Americans suffering from schizophrenia. That's nearly 1 percent of the population.

We would know that schizophrenia is a brain disorder in which a sufferer endures hallucinations and hears voices, loses the ability to express thoughts in an orderly way, descends into deep depression, and feels disconnected not just from the world, but his own body.

We would know that the illness can be controlled, but rarely cured.

We would know that in the despair brought on by this suffering, it is far more likely for a schizophrenic to kill himself than anyone else.

Yates, the Houston woman who killed her five children, once took an overdose of her mother's pills. She later said she "didn't want to die but wanted the misery to go away."

On another occasion, her husband caught her with a knife poised at her own neck. "I had a feeling I would hurt somebody," she said, "and I thought it better to end my life and prevent it."

Embedded in those words is the clear implication that she knew it would be wrong to hurt another person, at least in that moment.

But her rationality flickered on and off, like a bulb in a lamp with a loose connection.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, the risk that a schizophrenic will hurt another person increases when he or she is in the grips of psychotic symptoms, seeing hallucinations and hearing voices, as Yates was.

The risk also grows when the schizophrenic is off her medication, as Yates was, at a doctor's orders.

Then somebody like Andrea Yates is propelled by uncontrollable forces that overwhelm reason and sense. Right after she was arrested last June 20, she told an investigator that her five children had to die so that she would be punished for being a bad mother.

No sane person would have uttered those words.

The guilty verdict was the wrong verdict, but couldn't be helped: Our ignorance gets in the way. We don't understand mental illness, we are afraid of it, and we cling to the idea that a woman like Yates, who saw Satan everywhere, was nevertheless responsible for herself.

Andrea Yates had been treated for her illness for three years before she killed her children. She was in and out of hospitals. She was on and off anti-psychotic drugs. Sometimes treatment worked. Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes she told her husband and her doctors what she was thinking, what she was feeling. Sometimes she threw up a wall of silence. She wouldn't speak, eat, bathe.

At other times, she was an avid swimmer, she had friends, she was a proud and enthusiastic homeschooler of her children, she was devoted to her husband. But always she kept secret the terrifying thoughts that had rattled in her head from the birth of her children onward, across the years.

This was not duplicity at work. It was a doomed attempt to fake her way to normalcy, in the desperate hope that the voices and the images would just go away on their own and she would be all right again.

Having found her sane and guilty, the jury on Friday made the only humane decision possible, to put her in prison for life.

This is almost certainly too much to expect, so I will express this as a wish:

We should use this case as a window into the world of the severely mentally ill and learn from it. We should learn that Yates, though a murderer, is a victim of her disease, not a cunning doer of evil. Let us look upon her with mercy. If this tragic woman isn't worthy of it, nobody is.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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