Helping a loved one who is experiencing a severe mental illness, especially someone who may not realize they are sick, is one of the greatest gifts you can give. For some, it may mean the difference between life and tragedy. ~ Treatment Advocacy Center
OUR PREVENTABLE TRAGEDIES DATABASE - THE WHY AND HOW
The Treatment Advocacy Center’s Preventable Tragedies Database is a product of its times – and its times keep changing.
Available from virtually every page of our website, the Database initially was a collection of newspaper articles kept in file folders. Founder E. Fuller Torrey, MD, started clipping the stories in the early ‘80s as he saw “symptoms of things going wrong” as state hospitals closed and patients were discharged into communities that were unequipped to meet their needs.
“It was very random because it just consisted of what I could see for myself,” he says of the initial collection.
Not long after he founded the Treatment Advocacy Center in 1998, a dedicated system was created to track the "preventable tragedies" he had been tracking. Its purpose was to catalogue incidents that were reported in the news and involved either a victim or a perpetrator of a violent episode who suffered from severe mental illness (usually untreated). Ever since then, advocates of treatment law reform have used the system as a tool for illustrating to public officials that not treating severe mental illness has consequencies; media, researchers and legislative staff have consulted it as a source of state-specific information and a barometer of the systemic problems behind sensational headlines.
In its early days, entries for the Database were identified by using a computer-assisted legal research service. Eventually, Google took over as the search engine of choice. Essentially every weekday – then and now – a designated staff member searches the Internet for stories about preventable tragedies. Each story is then added to the Database either as a new incident or as an update to an existing one; website visitors can search the system by name or type of incident.
The information we're able to mine in this way has changed over time.
For several years, the long reach of Google made the Database more comprehenensive. But now an increasing number of newspapers are erecting “pay walls” to reserve their material for paying subscribers, and some newspaper stories are no longer available. When TV and radio stations began publishing transcripts of their stories online, broadcast news reports became more available to us. But when transcripts aren’t published, those broadcasts are out of sight and outside the Database. Another variable: If law enforcement doesn't identify mental illness as a factor in an incident, our search parameters won't find the event at all.
The practical impact of factors like these was illustrated by the Minnesota Star Gazette’s recent announcement that it is reversing a longstanding policy and will begin reporting suicide and mental illness-related calls to police (without revealing names). When media don’t report that mental illness is involved in a local tragedy, we don't see it, and we can't include it. If a news organization decides to ignore an entire class of incidents, such as suicides, we will not be able to find them, and the Database will be without them.
Despite challenges like these, we have catalogued more than 5,600 incidents, and we continue to track news for the Preventable Tragedies Database almost daily and update the system routinely. In explaining its policy change, the Gazette's editors wrote that leaving suicides off its pages constituted “sweeping the problem” of mental illness and its impact on law enforcement “under the rug” (“Star Gazette plans change in how it reports mental health and suicide calls,” Jan. 20).
We agree. A lot of things involving severe mental illness have gone wrong – and are going more wrong – as treatment options are eliminated or reduced for those with the most serious mental illnesses. As long as these consequences are swept under the rug, there is little hope they will be addressed or – in the case of problems the government doesn’t track at all, including the role of mental illness in police shootings – even recognized.
Anecdotal though it may be, the Preventable Tragedies Database is one of the ways we keep issues that result from not treating mental illness in public view – and make it harder for the public and policy makers to ignore them. It is also a way to memorialize those whose lives were lost in tragedies that could have been prevented.
Karen Easter, Mental Health Advocate for Assisted Outpatient Treatment