where life's not empty, it's restless.

Safety, Take Two

He didn’t think there was any way to get help for his son. And now six people are dead.

How did we get to this place in modern history where we routinely take better care of our bodies, our teeth, our cars, our homes than we do our minds, our hearts, our souls? If we’re lucky enough to have health insurance, it probably doesn’t cover mental health. Maybe medications: pills to make us less anxious or depressed. Maybe. But treatment? Therapy? No, our national mental health plan is to turn our most tortured souls out on the streets. Let them fend for themselves. Let them buy guns, no problem there! Let their aging parents and other relatives do what they can. But as long as it’s not our mentally ill relative, it’s not our problem.

If you are that aging parent, like Walter Stawicki, the father of Ian Stawicki, who killed five people, gravely wounded another and killed himself in Seattle on May 30, you know what resources are out there for your troubled adult child: none.  A 2006 survey ranked Washington state 47th in the number of psychiatric beds per capita. And involuntary commitment is well nigh impossible, unless your unstable relative is making imminent, life-endangering threats to another person. The Seattle Times reports that every month, between 15 hundred and two thousand people are evaluated by mental health professionals under the state’s involuntary treatment act. Two thirds of them are turned away.

So Walter Stawicki assumed, correctly, that there was little he could do to get his son the care he so clearly needed.

Meanwhile, people in central and south Seattle are still anguished over the May 24th death of Justin Ferrari, a Madrona dad caught in the crossfire of a gun battle on Cherry Street. And many are wondering: how did that killer slip away?            Whoever he is, that killer slipped away a long time ago.

Just as we have become accustomed to ignoring the needs of the mentally ill, we have grown accustomed to the stories of Seattle children who turn to the streets, to gangs, to drugs, to meet needs never met at school or home. We hear “argument on Cherry Street” and think we know all about it: it must have been gang-related or drug-related, we say, shaking our heads. But isn’t routinely ignoring the needs of children in crisis just as tragic as ignoring the needs of the mentally ill?

I’m with Kaaren Andrews, a mom and Seattle Schools principal who, in an eloquent Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, asks us to stop ignoring those kids. Stop writing them off and then shaking our heads when another tragedy occurs. Maybe no one has come forward to identify the killer of Justin Ferrari because they fear it will just add to the misery: they assume any informant will be targeted not only by gang members but by the police.

“No one chooses a life of street violence,” Andrews writes. “We all want safety, happiness and hope.” Just as no one chooses to be mentally ill.

Quaker author Parker Palmer writes of the power of turning a broken heart into a heart broken open. Let’s not let these tragedies break our hearts. Let’s break our hearts open to compassion, to empathy, to reaching across all the streets that divide us and finding ways to help.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


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3 thoughts on “Safety, Take Two

  1. poignant piece, ann. beautiful ending.

  2. Ann,

    Great piece. It’s all about insurance and liability. I was “sectioned” to a really rough ER in Boston where they send all the shooting victims and people off the streets. I was in the psych area, very secure. You get a bed with no pillow that has hooks so they can strap you down. No phone, nothing electrical, nothing that can be thrown, nothing sharp. You get body-searched by security guards and there are cameras in each individual room. Everything gets taken away including what you’re wearing. So many people were turned away, though. I guy walked out of there telling them he was going to go home and kill himself. He was bawling, begging to be hospitalized. I saw someone panic over the strip search and bolt out of there…he escaped. I saw drug cases coming in asking to be detoxed, but these, too, were turned away. The doctors seemed to know what they were doing, but the problem was that the hands-on personnel were not even nurses. I don’t know what they were…aides? They were routinely not passing on essential information to the doctors. They did not have psych training, apparently.

    Our belongings that had been taken from us were in plain view on a cart in the hallway. Sure enough, a guy had $40 taken from him by another patient. I overheard the staff discussing this and it was obvious that this place, like ALL the other emergency rooms, whether as secure as this one or not, was very slipshod.

    My friend is a nurse at a private hospital around here. Recently, a patient got discharged, went home, and killed himself. She admitted him. She said she had to go through some questioning but the real person who was probably very, very nervous was the discharge nurse. I’m sure his insurance company was the one that made this decision.

    I was in eating disorders treatment in 2010 when I saw a girl whose blood pressure was so low that they required her to be wheeled around in a wheelchair get discharged. She was on the phone daily with the insurance company, begging them to give her more time. She had already had a heart attack. I think she was 23 or so.

    I spent three days at that Boston Medical Center ER. I refused to go to the eating disorders place where I’d been cuz I was afraid they’d make me fat. Just the way folks like us think. I was starving and not thinking clearly. They tried to find me a bed elsewhere, saying I needed to go in. None of the psych units would take me due to “liability” as I was in a dangerous place medically. After the three days, they let me go, not knowing what else to do. Apparently at the last minute, one of the aides took my vitals. They were way, way off. The staff never told the doctor. I really didn’t care, just wanted to get out of that place.

    The staff were so uneducated, just didn’t know what to make of me, didn’t understand why I wouldn’t eat. One of them tried to shove crackers into my mouth. They were nice, though. They let me use a pencil and paper.

    Of course, I lived…I don’t know about the other folks, though.

    Julie Greene

  3. Oh, Ann, I should add…I have been looking for a therapist since mid-March and no one will take me. They won’t take public insurance, most of them. The ones that do take my insurance turn me away. Liability, usually, or they just don’t want to bother with chronics. I’ve heard all the excuses. They don’t want to take on people with serious medical issues. Or I’m too old, or I’ve had it too long. If you are a serious case, you are in fact far less likely to find a therapist! I’ve been turned away from every group therapy I’ve tried to get into.

    Then there’s the Department of Mental Health…ahem…they don’t know what to do with me! Apparently, if you can put a sentence together and shower a few times a week, you’re not worthy of their attention. I think the workers are there just to give people rides places, not to do any real work. The worker I had would always come late if she showed up at all, and just plain didn’t care. She always said she was late due to emergencies, but the new worker said there was no way she was telling the truth. They say I am “capable,” “educated,” and “do my Activities of Daily Living.” I guess eating isn’t an ADL…interesting.

    Julie Greene

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