On Jan. 16, Aaron Johnson was shot by Spokane police officers outside the Truth Ministries shelter. It was reported that Aaron was agitated, armed with a knife and acting crazy. What was not reported is that he is mentally ill, long ago diagnosed with a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia. I am his aunt.
My sister and her husband were told that Aaron’s birth mother suffered from the same mental health disorder when he was offered to them for adoption at the age of two months. They were told there was a good chance he would inherit it. They took him anyway; cute as a bug, a baby who grew into a darling little boy.
The literature says that symptoms of schizophrenia can sometimes start in the teens, with signs if you know what to look for. My sister says, looking back, those signs were there. Aaron turned 18 before graduating from high school. It was then he started to disappear for days and weeks at a time. His worried parents – God-fearing, church-going, solid blue collar parents – could do nothing but worry. He was an adult.
Eventually, he would turn up at home to a door that remained open until this last year. He got into trouble with the law, served hard time and was released. During his incarceration his disease really took hold and the prison system, serving as the main default housing for the mentally ill in many states, was not capable of providing adequate mental health treatment for those severely ill like Aaron.
The press had no trouble finding his criminal history as it’s a matter of public record. What they can’t find because it’s protected by law is his mental health history. Over the last three years, Aaron was in and out of Eastern State Mental Hospital, not by choice. There he received the care he needed including mandatory medication. Aaron is a schizophrenic who does not believe he’s ill. He doesn’t take his meds if he is unsupervised. While most schizophrenics are not violent, Aaron became increasingly so over the last few years.
Inevitably, Eastern released him, and did so more than once; they do not have the capability to hold someone like Aaron for the long term. They found a halfway house where he was placed in a dorm-like room with another man who also suffered from mental illness. Soon an altercation ensued and Aaron ended up back in jail for a short time, and then back in Eastern, medicated for a few weeks and then released again in a cycle that repeated. Finally, his parents could not have him back in their home. They no longer felt safe. They could not make him take his meds; no one could outside of a locked-in living environment.
And so he began living on the street, just like so many of the severely mentally ill. While he was supposed to be reporting to Spokane Mental Health Services for meds he did not do so. Unmedicated, his illness became worse and the result was the series of events that occurred last week. He was shot multiple times, though the police have not told his parents any of the details. Until Friday, they been allowed to see him.
This is a story of a young life that is increasingly being repeated in the press around the country. Sometimes there are no signs. In this case the family has tried to advocate in court, at Eastern and at Spokane Mental Health for appropriate treatment in a long-term mental health care facility. Privacy laws have protected the adult Aaron but kept his family at arm’s length. His mother has begged for him to be supervised because she knew that something bad was going to happen if not. And now something bad has happened.
His parents are grateful for two things: that he did not badly hurt someone else, and that he is still alive. Now they have a wish for two things: that his full story is told so it becomes part of a rising tide urging elected officials in Spokane, Washington, and Washington, D.C., to provide more care facilities and better treatment for the severely mentally ill before the next Sandy hook or Virginia Tech happens. And they wish for Aaron to be placed now, finally, in an appropriate long-term, secure mental health facility rather than be sent back to prison where he does not belong and will not be treated.