Public Comment

Commentary: Lacking Mechanisms to Deal With the Mentally Ill

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday October 09, 2007

I couldn’t help being shaken by the “accidental death” of Carol Ann Gotbaum, in a holding cell at a Phoenix airport. From what I can gather, she acted in an erratic and irate manner, a similar manner to a mentally ill person in crisis. It brought back memories of friends and acquaintances who are mentally ill and who died either while being restrained or in some other way because of the illness.  

It is a universal story that goes along with mental illness that police or other authorities often treat an ill person roughly, and sometimes in a humiliating or even dangerous manner. I have heard a story of a young man in custody who died in the transport van due to overheating. I can remember three other mentally ill who died of a heart attack, either because of their psychotic episode or because of the health problems associated with their medication. I know of several others who committed suicide. Mentally ill people have died while tied down on a four-point restraint table; repeated checking is legally required in California to prevent this. It doesn’t always work. 

Whether Carol Gotbaum’s erratic behavior was caused by drug addiction or a mental health diagnosis doesn’t concern this article. Airport security must have lacked training to deal with persons who are in crisis, who are not a threat to security. It should not be a life-threatening situation for a mentally ill person who needs to fly somewhere.  

Many police forces in recent years have received training to deal with mentally ill persons in a non-lethal manner. The officers who have received this training are not always sensitive and sweet; however the mentally ill person with whom they have dealt doesn’t get maimed or killed by officers as often. However this has come about because thousands of mentally ill persons lost their lives due to mistreatment or neglect. It is still not uncommon for mentally ill to be shot to death by police when the mentally ill person appears threatening. Mentally ill are usually not as threatening as they appear. 

A few years ago in the news there was a story of a man with bipolar illness who ran off a plane and whom security shot to death. Terrorists are the exception not the rule when someone acts erratic. There needs to be a system in place that accounts for terrorist behavior versus a mental health crisis.  

However, I speculate that airport security could have been quite aware this woman wasn’t a terrorist. They treated the woman in a way that was most convenient to them, which was to handcuff her and forget about her. Mentally ill have received this type of treatment a lot over the past five decades. Now it is being talked about because it has happened in a more visible place.  


Jack Bragen is a Martinez resident.