The Kia Johnson case — in which a Wilkinsburg, Pa., woman with mental illness was charged with killing a pregnant teenager and stealing her baby — drew worldwide news coverage this summer. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says it was just one of at least 10 serious incidents involving local residents with mental illness that have occurred in local neighborhoods in less than a year. Known as sentinel events, they are tracked by the state Department of Public Welfare. Officials are struggling with how to prevent such violence or other problems.
Sentinel events have left officials, grieving families, and others to ask: Are people falling through the cracks of the community mental health system? And what might be done to prevent such problems from occurring? “What we’re seeing, in tragedies large and small, is what happens when we fail to make the investment in mental health services,” said Dr. Robert Bernstein of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “There are fundamental flaws in mental health service delivery across the board.” Experts disagree on what changes should be made to prevent violence or other serious problems. Some measures that might help are controversial because they restrict patients’ rights. Only a small fraction of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness.