'If Only They Had Treated Him Before'


Will Bruce strolls across the pale yellow and green linoleum tile of the psychiatric hospital in Augusta, Maine that has been his home for more than seven years. “So long,” he tells staff members who’ve gathered to see him off. “I hope I don’t come back.”

The last time he was discharged, Will was a different man. He’d refused treatment for 2 1/2 months and gone back into the world the way he’d arrived: confused, incoherent, psychotic. Two months later, he bludgeoned his mother to death with a hatchet. He believed she was an al Qaeda operative.

Will is part of a special state program in Maine that allows the most violently mentally ill to get treatment after crimes instead of going to prison. Inside Riverview Psychiatric Center are dozens of other forensic patients who have killed, assaulted or committed other offenses.

They watch Will, and hope to take the same path toward freedom.

In a special report on “America's Mental Health Crisis,” CNN went beyond the headlines to examine people living with mental illness and those searching for solutions. The series of reports was produced for the CNN Health Section, where Jacque Wilson, a 2013 John Jay/Langeloth Health Reporting Fellow, is interim editor.

Below is an abridged version of the first program in the series, written by Wayne Drash, with video by Brandon Ancil of CNN, which aired this month. Jan Winburn edited the series. For links to the full multimedia program and series, see below.

On this day in March, Will heads a few blocks around the corner to a 1960s split ranch, a doctor’s office that has been converted into a supervised group home. There he joins seven other mentally ill residents. Four, like Will, have killed.

Each remains in the custody of the state but has earned the right to live in the community by following rules, taking medication and abiding by a structured court-ordered treatment plan. The patients walk the streets, eat in restaurants, shop in stores— like other residents of Augusta. Though they must report where they are going, they don’t wear ankle bracelets.

But they live with the terrible burden of their actions.

The nation learns about the Will Bruces of the world after the unthinkable happens: “Caratunk woman found slain; husband discovers body at home; son surrenders in South Portland” read the headline in the Bangor Daily News on June 22, 2006.

But rarely do we hear about what happens next, after the legal system has run its course. Are the mentally ill simply locked away? And if they get treatment, does it work?

Even more rare is the chance to hear from the mentally ill themselves.

The story of Will Bruce and his father provides a peek into that aftermath. It is a complicated period strewn with anger, immeasurable grief and pain. Faith and family ties are tested. Confounding legal obstacles loom. At best, the mentally ill begin a trial-and-error pursuit of wholeness that unfolds over years, even decades.

It never ends.

Bipartisan Issue

There are few bipartisan issues left in Washington, yet Republicans and Democrats alike insist changes to the nation’s mental health system are long overdue. The debate isn’t about whether reform is needed; it’s about how best to implement it [and find] a delicate balance between treatment, civil rights and public safety.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania, has proposed the most sweeping mental health bill in two decades. It’s called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, or HR 3717. Among its key provisions: making it easier to commit someone involuntarily and allowing more parental involvement in a young adult’s care.

Murphy is a psychologist who remains adamant that a young person undergoing psychosis or other delusions would be best served by a family member who can help in the recovery. Critics charge that the bill will trample individuals’ rights and cause more harm than good. Murphy remains unbowed.

After the mass killings in Santa Barbara, California, in May, he said simply, “What makes these painful episodes so confounding is the reality that so many tragedies involving a person with a mental illness are entirely preventable.”

Amy Bruce’s death was preventable. She tirelessly sought help for her son—even after she no longer had a say in his care.

At 24, Will Bruce became a symbol of the broken mental health care system.

Now, he hopes to stand for something else: the successful rehabilitation of the mentally ill. An example of what could have been achieved had there been treatment before tragedy.

The above is an abridged version of the story that ran this month on CNN.com, which was produced as part of the “Health Behind Bars” journalism reporting fellowship sponsored by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Langeloth Foundation. To see the complete version and other pieces in the series, please click here. Readers comments are welcome.

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