April 03, 2006

Call It 'Murder'

by Susan Rudelitch DiFluri, OTR/L, M.Ed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: What follows was submitted to us as a comment on our news story, Hospital Fined $71,000 For Man's Restraint Death, about Benjamin Wolfe. We felt it deserved an entry in its own right.

I knew a young man. His name was Benjamin. To know Ben was to love Ben. He was a great kid – always willing to help others no matter what the task or labor. He was known to literally give someone the shirt off his back.

Ben was also extremely bright and talented. He practiced music constantly and was a gifted saxophonist. He understood the mathematics of music and could deliver the most ethereal and soulful sax sound. His smile, his creativity and his engaging conversation were aspects of his personality that made one look forward to seeing him, being with him.

We -- his family, his friends, his acquaintances and those he touched through his music -- no longer look forward to Ben's physical presence, for it no longer exists.

I am trying to read through the article in Sunday's edition ofthe Morning Call, "No charges will be filed in teen's death" (also on Ragged Edge Online here), about the young man who lost his life in a facility and a system designed to protect him… and I can't.

I can't because it brings to the forefront of my mind (it is always there, but not always in the forefront), the incident that ended Benjamin's life on October 4, 2004. Ben lost his life at the hands of "mental health workers" in a restraining incident less than 24 hours of his admission to the Gnaden Huetten Behavior Health Unit of Blue Mountain Health System. The hospital was fined by the Pennsylvania Department of Health on many counts, including failing to follow restraint procedures.

Let's call these situations what they are: "Murder", "Manslaughter"! If these same events occurred on a street corner – where ironically and incidentally there are no policies and procedures to be followed, only social mores - someone would be held accountable! Family and friends could have the option of being able to forgive or chastise the face or faces behind the inevitable action that took their loved one's life.

This is the twenty-first century and we still don't get it! We still don't understand "mental illness", "behavioral health". Call it what you will. Perhaps that is the problem – neither of these terms accurately defines the underlying cause of the symptoms of neurologically based disorders. It's easier to minimize someone whose thinking seems skewed, who possibly perceives the stimulus in his or her environment seemingly strangely and whose behaviors seems socially dysfunctional.

We as a "normal" and "well" society created systems to "protect" those that periodically or chronically 'suffer' from these often times neurologically based disorders, as well as protect society from those whose symptoms might in fact be harmful to others. However, the restraining actions to which I refer seem too common and often factually unjustified especially when occurring in a medically and behaviorally based setting.

I am not talking about the 'criminally insane' (and what a horrible term that is). I am talking about the often misunderstood, highly sensitive and sensing, fearful and on the edge of fight or flight individual who, through the less than ideal procedures of the system, is admitted to a facility with the purpose of minimizing these exact symptoms so that he/she can be better able to cope with the everyday realities of life, but who winds up being treated criminally.

Not following procedures for restraints and participating in restraining without training are acts of negligence in and of themselves. When these factors result in another human being's death, they are criminal. Systems need to be held, not only accountable, but responsible. I commend the mother of the teenager in the story I found difficult to read as she plans to fight so that this never happens again.

But I personally am angry at the law. I am angry that yet another facility, another system is protected by a legal system finding no criminal behavior, no criminal intent in these all too common restraint deaths of young and beautiful – though perhaps misunderstood – individuals.

Are we that complacent as a society? Does thinking, "Oh, he was weird kid anyway," justify our negligence? Does it justify our inhumane actions against another…? God, I hope not.

Ben is gone. Maybe you don't know or remember him. His family and friends will never forget him. And someone held him down and didn't respond to his pleas when he said he couldn't breathe… someone killed him. No question. It is the only reality that we can understand. Ben was not a menace to society. He was scared. The last words to his mother on the phone were those seeking reassurance, "Mom, will I be alright?" And she believed he was in a safe place and that he would.

The system not only killed him, it failed her. He had a right to be treated and a right to be protected. He has no human rights now. We had an understanding that a system was in place to do a job. That system and those participants in it not only failed, they were wrong, and their actions were intentional and criminal.

On Friday there was an article in the Lifestyle section of the Lehighton Times News about a 51-year old man, David Borghi, who had years of artwork stored away that he had done during his life. This man had been treated over the years for a psychiatric diagnosis. Today he is being recognized for his talent -- a recent exhibit in Chicago at the 3rd annual Intuit Show of Fold and Outsider Art and a current exhibit at the Marion Harris Gallery in New York City. I mention this man, as I believe that Ben, like David, had talents that would shine later – given time and healing.

We are the losers in this society, we who take away the potentiality of others when allowed to express our own misguided fears and prejudices in jobs protected by systems that had been established to protect those 'others'. We'll never know Ben's potentiality as a musician or as a man, although we are convinced of his brilliance, because a few people in a poorly run system took that away…and another faulty system fails to recognize criminality in its saddest form.

Susan Rudelitch DiFluri has spent 15 years of her 31-year occupational therapy career working in the area of psycho-social dysfunction.

Posted on April 03, 2006