A month ago, an Eastern State Hospital patient made headlines across the nation when he walked away from a field trip to the Spokane County Interstate Fair. Some questioned whether Phillip A. Paul, who had been committed after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1987 killing of a retired Sunnyside, Wash., schoolteacher, was an acceptable candidate for such an outing. Paul was captured on Sept. 20, three days after his escape. But the investigation into the policies and procedures of state mental institutions continues. Review of media coverage of the incident also merits a critical look, according to Ron Anderson, a retired mental health counselor and president of the Spokane affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness whom The Spokesman-Review interviewed last week.
Q.Is it appropriate for forensic mentally ill patients to attend public outings?
A.If you look at the goal of recovery as being returned to the community, it would seem appropriate. That is the goal of recovery, to get people back into society.
Q.Do you think the public reaction to the escape of Phillip Paul was appropriate?
A.The public reaction that I saw was fear, but I thought that was the product of the media coverage of it.
Q.What is your opinion of the media handling of this story?
A.When you use the words “paranoid schizophrenic killer” or “criminally insane killer on the loose,” it sounds like he was on a killing spree at the time.
He was in recovery. He was taking his medications. He wasn’t a criminally insane killer on the loose; he was a man who was in recovery with other patients and walked away.
Q.How do you rate the state’s handling of this event?
A.At first they were reactionary, but I think they had to say something to show they were on top of it and they were going to make some changes. So far I don’t know what the state reaction is. They are still reviewing and they are still trying to come up with a better plan as far as supervision. (Meanwhile, he added, all state mental patients, not only the forensic unit, have lost privileges as a result of the incident.)
Q.Did this event improve or set back awareness and understanding of mental illness?
A.It’s a scary world for them (those with mental illness) anyway, and now to be stigmatized that way … is dangerous. We are dealing with life-threatening illness here (because of the risk of suicide). By increasing the stigma in a community like this, it gives the people who aren’t in treatment even more reason not to seek it.