Shining Light on a Challenged Mental Health System

William James College Hosts Conference on Boston Globe's Controversial Spotlight Series

May 15, 2017

Robert Kinscherff, PhD, JD; Scott Allen; Jenna Russell; Deborah Delman; Ken Duckworth, MD; and Nicholas Covino, PsyD.

Spotlight Series Statistics“At least 17 parents with signs of mental illness allegedly killed their children from 2005 through 2015. And, at least 18 sons and daughters with signs of mental illness were accused of killing their parents,” stated the Boston Globe in the first article of a Spotlight Series on the state’s Mental Health System. While the series delved into a range of topics and gained the attention of readers, the initial article’s focus on violence raised major concerns in the mental health community.

William James College took a strong position on the series. Nicholas Covino wrote in an open letter, “It is disconcerting that the literary device used to capture people’s attention in the series seems to be the ‘danger’ we should all feel from the mentally ill and not the compassion we should feel. We know that violence is a very small part of the picture of the seriously mentally ill. These folks are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”

The College also hosted a conference on the Spotlight series, bringing together Boston Globe Spotlight Team members and leaders in the care community to discuss the impact of the articles as well as what they see as the most important challenges in mental health care today.

Scott Allen, Spotlight Team Editor, began the discussion by acknowledging the controversial nature of the articles and explaining their goal of bringing attention to major problems in the Mental Health System. “If you look at the stories, they talk about very specific hospitals and health care centers that have abdicated their responsibilities and are letting people out in actively psychotic states, [who] are going off and committing terrible crimes,” he said, noting that a lot of action is needed to fix the system.

Globe Reporter Jenna Russell added that while the stories are about a “narrow segment” of the mentally ill population, it is the job of reporters to confront the “most tragic and difficult problems” to better understand why they occur and how to prevent them.

The question is whether [that story] will motivate our society to fund things better. We have a very good idea of what works, but what we don’t have are resources.” 
—Dr. Ken Duckworth

Dr. Ken Duckworth, who serves as medical director for both the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Behavioral Health at BC/BS of Massachusetts, maintained that the focus should be on funding. “The question is whether [that story] will motivate our society to fund things better. We have a very good idea of what works, but what we don’t have are resources. It’s easier to get into Harvard Medical School than into Tewksbury State Hospital,” he said.

Another major issue that needs attention is stigma, as many people aren’t comfortable sharing their suicidal feelings or admitting they have experienced hearing voices, said Deborah Delman, Executive Director of The Transformation Center. “What we are seeking is the welcome in society as a whole to be able to hear the truth. There is hope and a way forward and we can find that together, but the tabloid approach is not the way that will help people relate.”

Robert Kinscherff, Associate Vice President of Community Engagement at William James College, maintained that “a lot of the risk of severe and persistent mental illness and the intersection with the criminal justice system is largely a function of social context and downward social drift.” 

Despite differing opinions on how to frame the issues, President Covino pointed out that the state of the Mental Health System is a problem for everyone. The series, he said, tells the story of a system that “needs tremendous engagement,” which is clear from the “tremendous adverse consequences” highlighted in the articles. 

As he wrote in his letter, “It will require a great deal of work to raise our collective will to create a compassionate and accessible mental health system. Hopefully, the ‘Spotlight’ that is being directed upon this problem will facilitate some needed change.”