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A Cry for Help in the Brooklyn Subway Shooting

Failure of the mental health and legal system led to isolation and rage.

Key points

  • The Brooklyn subway shooter was failed by both the mental health and legal system.
  • Victims of this mass shooting may suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and affect dysregulation.
  • Kendra's Law enables the New York state to provide for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for people with mental illness.
Katie Godowski/Shutterstock
Source: Katie Godowski/Shutterstock

This past Tuesday a mass shooting occurred on a Brooklyn subway where dozens of riders were trapped inside a train car with a man that became unhinged. This individual detonated smoke bombs before shooting off 33 rounds, striking 10 and leaving a total of 29 victims injured. To date, seven people have been hospitalized for their wounds but remain in stable condition. The terror those aboard this train must have felt witnessing such a horrific mass shooting is incomprehensible. Video footage has revealed images of those hit lying down covered in their own blood. The suspect, a 63-year-old, had traveled from Wisconsin to commit what appears to be a premeditated crime. He will be charged with a terroristic act on mass transit and faces life in prison according to federal prosecutors. There is no argument that this isn't a crime of unthinkable proportions.

Moreover, in addition to the actual physical injuries to the victims that were shot, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may accompany those who witnessed this event. This crime redefines what trauma is and how it will alter the affect regulation of all those involved. Indeed, the neurons in the brain take a photograph when one is caught in a catastrophic situation, and unless and until you work through processing such trauma, it can become ingrained in your unconscious, your body, and your amygdala, the crisis center of your brain. It may take years for these victims to work through a state of hypervigilance, to feel calm and peace again. The physical scars will likely heal much faster than the emotional wounds left imprinted on their mental health.

However, there is another victim here caught in the smoke ignited on that subway train. While some may not feel that the suspect is also a casualty, the facts indicate otherwise. The suspect, Frank James, was traumatized by a system that refused to hear his cries for help. He is a man that lost his mother at the age of five, which, clinically, can induce trauma that if left unprocessed can be paralyzing. He drifted in and out of jobs and his sister identified him as always being alone in the world. Indeed, he made multiple videos in the past month stating that his time in the mental health system failed him and he felt isolated and angry. He indicated that back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s he sought out mental health services for his own personal crisis and was neglected. James stated he was diagnosed with mental illness but the care he received was akin to a “horror show.” He was in and out of mental health facilities in the Bronx in the 70s and he was a patient at Bridgeway House in New Jersey in the late 90s and then again around 2007.

James addressed the mayor and argued that he was a victim of the mental-health program that left him embittered and angry. Through his videos, he seemed pained by the fact of continued racism, poverty, and homelessness. He even relayed to the mayor, again via video, that he believed that the homeless population had been completely ignored by politicians and that it was hard to see so many people living in the subway on the floor. Unfortunately, his feelings of isolation and despair had fallen on deaf ears. Unsurprisingly, in his most recent video rants within the past few weeks, his pain seemed to turn more and more angry, projecting that he had no choice but to declare impending violence on some unsuspecting victims.

Sadly, he was not only failed by mental health services but by the legal system as well. He had 12 prior arrests in New York and New Jersey from 1990 to 2007 with misdemeanor crimes ranging from theft, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and a criminal sex act. This was clearly a man in need of mental health services as he drifted from jobs and locations frequently. With 12 arrests under his belt, there should have been some intervention required of James regarding being in an outpatient mental health facility when he was in New York per Kendra’s Law. This law specifically enables the New York State legislation to provide for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) for individuals with mental illness, who, given their treatment history and prognosis need further support to effectively survive in the community.

Both James and his victims fell prey to a system that simply ignored his cries for help over and over. Kendra’s Law must work in conjunction with having enough hospital beds and staff and supportive housing services for those afflicted with a mental illness living in the community. Every individual must take responsibility for their own actions, and James acted as a terrorist on that Brooklyn subway this past Tuesday. There is no denying the severity of his behavior. However, this was a man who was failed by the mental health community over and over, compounded by the sheer neglect of the legal system to obtain some supportive treatment services and interventions on his behalf. He tried to get help repeatedly, yet his efforts went ignored and his cries for help turned desperate and eventually gruesome.

More from Michelle Charness JD, PsyD, LCSW
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