Press Releases

The Russell Weston Tragedy is the Tragic Story of Schizophrenia in America

Statement by Laurie M. Flynn, Executive Director National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

Jul 27 1998

Our hearts go out to the families of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut and Special Agent John M. Gibson who were killed in the line of duty this past Friday. We have the deepest respect for the dedicated service and personal sacrifice these individuals and others in their position make in protecting this country’s lawmakers, their staffs, and visitors to the Nation’s Capitol.

As a family organization, we also know the desperation and agony that Russell Weston’s family is experiencing. We are familiar with the heavy burden of care that families carry in attempting to ensure that their loved ones with severe mental illness get the treatment they so desperately need. We believe that Russell Weston’s family did the very best they could.

It is important to remember that schizophrenia is a chronic and disabling brain disorder that affects approximately two million Americans each year. It impairs an individual’s ability to think clearly, manage his or her emotions, make decisions, and relate to others – even family members. Great progress has been made in understanding, diagnosing, and treating this crippling brain disorder. We now know that people with schizophrenia do best when they receive a combination of medication and intensive, ongoing community support. Recovery is, for the first time, a real possibility for many individuals with schizophrenia.

However, we also know that science has advanced much faster than the availability of services. Russell Weston’s story is really the tragic story of schizophrenia in this country. For Russell Weston and thousands like him, recovery is never fully within their grasp because the care they need is simply not available.

In fact, a recent national study documented that fewer than 50 percent of individuals with schizophrenia are receiving the care that science has proven to work.

The experience of NAMI families has taught us that four critical elements must be in place to effectively address the full spectrum of services needed by our family members who suffer from this disabling brain disorder:

  1. community-based care including ongoing medical treatment, housing, rehabilitation, and other supports for those who are able to recognize the need for care and manage their own illness;
  2. assertive community treatment programs that provide 24-hour-a-day outreach and crisis support for those who are less able to maintain their own treatment requirements;
  3. outpatient treatment orders that require participation in treatment as a condition for living in the community for those who do not respond to outreach and resist treatment; and
  4. involuntary inpatient commitment that provides short-term hospitalization to treat and stabilize acute psychiatric symptoms for those who are unable to recognize their need for treatment due to the symptoms of their illness.

It’s a travesty that these elements are rarely available to those who so clearly need them. Too often, it’s the families who assume the primary burden of caring for their loved ones without the resources to do so. Families have the impossible task of managing one of the most complex illnesses known to modern medicine, rarely with the network of care we take for granted when facing other serious medical conditions.

Studies have shown that individuals receiving appropriate treatment for schizophrenia are no more prone to violence than the general population. However, the inability to provide immediate, flexible and humane treatment to those who are suffering increases the potential for violent acts.

Senseless tragedies like the Capitol Hill shootings can be prevented. We know how to provide people with schizophrenia with the treatment they need. It is time for this country to invest the resources necessary to provide humane and effective care to people who suffer from schizophrenia.