Death of a kid needing help
By Mona Cornwell
There was no escaping the tragic irony of the story on the radio that rainy last week as I drove down Interstate 40 to Raleigh. The newscaster reported a 13-year-old Harnett County boy had been killed by deputies outside a convenience story about 2:30 a.m. two days before.
Details about the death of eighth-grader Joseph Wheeler were still emerging, but early news reports painted a picture of a troubled kid who made posts on his MySpace page three days earlier indicating he was sad and suicidal. “Death will come shortly for the next person who messes with me in the next week,” one of the posts said.
Armed with one .22-caliber and two 9 mm handguns, along with about 250 rounds of ammunition, Joe Wheeler was sitting in a ditch in front of the Super Mart when the two deputies noticed him. When they asked Joe what was in his bookbag, he pulled out one of the 9 mms and shot a deputy in the leg. The officers returned fire, and 13-year-old Joe Wheeler died.
As I listened in horror, I thought of my own 13-year-old son, a bright, funny kid who loves to play soccer, brings home As on his report card, pesters his big brother, and plans to sing in the school musical in the spring. A kid whose biggest worry is whether his limit of 200 text messages a month will be enough to tide him over. A kid who, relatively speaking, gives his Mom very little cause to worry.
I wondered how a kid that age got three guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
I wondered how he came to be sitting in a ditch in front of a convenience store in the middle of the night.
Mostly, I wondered how we let Joe Wheeler down. How did we fail his family, his friends, his teachers, his classmates, and the two deputies whose lives are forever changed by the senselessness of that night?
I say “we” because as a mental health advocate, as a family member of individuals with mental illness, as a woman who starts her day by downing a little blue and white pill that keeps her chronic depression at bay, I’m culpable. Indeed, all of us as human beings share the culpability.
Not until we really make the effort to understand mental illness, not until we reach out to know the individual behind the diagnosis, not until we end the stigma that prevents those who need help from asking for it will there be no more Joe Wheelers.
Indeed, reaching out to individuals with mental illness is what Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for law enforcement is all about. And the fact that I was traveling to Raleigh for a meeting of the state CIT advisory committee when I heard the news about Joe struck me as both heartbreaking and tragically ironic.
Asheville and Buncombe County have had a CIT program in place since 2007. More than 90 officers from the police and sheriff’s departments have gone through 40 hours of training at A-B Tech on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to de-escalate situations involving people in psychiatric crisis. Officers from nearby counties also have participated in the course in hopes of starting a CIT program in their own areas, not necessarily out of personal interest but because as our state’s mental health system has unraveled, these officers have become the ones forced to respond to mental health crises, their jails transformed into de facto mental institutions.
Their weeklong training includes lectures by clinicians about illnesses and medications, visits to sites in the community that serve the mentally ill, stories from the mentally ill and their family members about the personal toll these illnesses take on their lives, and opportunities for the officers to participate in practical exercises to learn skills that will help them defuse crisis situations.
The goal of CIT is to help the mentally ill who commit offenses as a result of those illnesses get treatment instead of jail time and to keep them, their family members, and law enforcement officers safe when they find themselves in potentially volatile situations.
Offered through a partnership that includes A-B Tech, Buncombe County, the City of Asheville, Mission Hospitals, the Sheriff’s Department, the Police Department, Western Highlands Network and the local affiliate of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), CIT training is an example of community collaboration at its best,
CIT likely wouldn’t have have made a difference in Joe Wheeler’s situation. But it might for the next Joe Wheeler and the Joe Wheelers to follow.
I drove on through the gray day toward Raleigh, the wipers clearing the windshield of rain as I wiped the tears from my eyes.