by Dr. William Steven Saunders, Psy. D.
This piece was originally syndicated online in 2009. It is republished here with permission of the author in the interests of raising health about the problems faced by mental healthcare today and what we can do to positively reform the mental healthcare system.
You can read more about Dwight McWaters and Dr. Saunders' work for mental healthcare reform at dwightmcwaters.blogspot.com
I am writing to you on behalf of my Uncle Dwight McWaters of Bonifay, FL who died April 2004.
He was a wonderful man for the majority of his 40 years of life. He was a college educated chemist, an artist, and a proponent of the homeless. He would often minister to the sick and elderly with his music and art in fulfillment of his Christian values. He was a patriot and honorable citizen. He did not have a criminal record.
Unfortunately, he struggled with mental illness for over 10 years. He was suffering from Bipolar Disorder (Manic-Depression) with psychotic symptoms (a loss of touch with reality). He was frequently hospitalized for psychotic breakdowns but would generally improve for a short while following medication and therapy. In October 2003, he experienced a severe breakdown. His behavior and comments seemed to indicate that he could become violent.
We pleaded with local authorities to assist Dwight. Finally, after several days of family urging, he was ordered hospitalized by the local Judge. Nevertheless, he was released against the wishes of the majority of his family. I called the psychiatric hospital in Bay County, Florida several times to urge them to Baker-Act him. I knew the mental health care in his community was inadequate for the chronically mentally ill and he was better off in an inpatient facility. Even so, they did not or could not keep him.
Then in late March, 2004, Dwight was seen by his neighbors shouting at bushes and firing his rifle into the woods. When local Bonifay, FL Officer Steven Lee arrived on the scene, Dwight felt threatened by Officer Lee’s attempts to take him into custody and shot him. Dwight barricaded himself in his home and refused to come out. He shot out of his window and Police returned fire at which time Dwight was fatally wounded.
I was on the scene at the time but was unable to communicate with Dwight, only forced to watch in horror as this tragedy unfolded.
As a Licensed Psychologist and former U.S. Department of Justice employee, I’ve often advocated for the mentally ill. But never before has this issue impacted me so deeply and personally. In an effort to prevent these future tragedies, I urge you to help get the word out!
Contact your local state Representative, Congressman, Senator, Governor, and President and urge them to pass the following legislation:
1)A Bill that would provide tax breaks for any mental health professional who volunteers to help educate local police on how to manage acutely and chronically mentally ill persons in the community
2) A Bill that would provide tax incentives for community mental health centers
in rural areas, and finally
3) A Bill that would authorize prescription privileges for psychologists who work in rural areas. There is intermittent psychiatric care in Bonifay, FL where my Uncle lived and he had to drive 1 to 2 hours many times to find the nearest psychiatrist for medication. New Mexico and Louisiana recently passed a law allowing psychologists to prescribe medication for the mentally ill. These laws are expected to help rural areas most directly where psychiatrists are not likely to practice. If similar laws were passed in Florida and through-out the nation, access to much needed medications and psychotherapy would greatly increase.
Thank you for your kind consideration of this important matter. Please help me avert these future tragedies.
W. Steven Saunders, Psy.D.
Dr. Kimberley Blackmon
Dr. Blackmon is our chairperson for the Department of Justice. She began her law enforcement career in 1998, working as an investigative intern with the Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office. A Florida native, she earned her undergraduate degree in Criminology at Florida State University. Having developed a deep passion for the criminal justice process, she went on to complete the police academy and joined the Clermont Police Department in Central Florida in 1999. While gaining experience in patrol, investigations, community relations and administration, she continued her studies and completed her master’s degree in criminal justice in 2006 from Nova Southeastern University.