It was with a heavy heart that I heard about Inga Swanson being shot and killed. I and others have long said that we wondered if it would take someone's death to wake up Hernando County to the reality of mental health issues.
I will not pretend to know of Swanson's exact situation, but obvious to all is that she was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Whether the shooting of Swanson was justified is still to be determined. But we know one thing for sure, Swanson never should have died.
The facts that we do know is that she was seen by multiple people on multiple occasions. Multiple people saw her naked. Multiple people came in contact with her. Multiple people saw and heard her irrational behaviors and speech. Multiple people watched her walk away. And at least one wanted to take pictures of a crazy naked lady holding a cross. She did not have to die. The people who came in contact with her from our community failed her. There are no excuses. We failed her.
One in four adults and one in 10 children in our community will face a mental health crisis this year. It may be minor or it may be major, but these numbers will hold true. We know that, according to the most recent statistics, our suicide rate is 45 percent higher than the state average. Hernando has the highest percentage in the state of babies born addicted to prescription drugs. Hernando County's Baker Act initiations (involuntary exams) for children age 4 to 17 are 72 percent higher than the state average. All ages for Baker Acts are consistently higher than the state averages. We don't even have a facility that can treat our children in the midst of a Baker Act mental health crisis. They are all sent out of county for their 72-hour examinations.
The number one sign of a mental health crisis is a radical change in behavior. They go from dressing modestly to suddenly being sexual or even naked. Their speech will become irrational along with their thought processes. Irritability and anger dominate. There may be lavish spending sprees, "sexing" sprees, or sudden trips. There will often be a sharp increase in alcohol or drug abuse. Many will suddenly become intensely spiritual. They may cut themselves. The key is that their behaviors have changed suddenly for the worse.
Being in the midst of a mental health crisis does not make you a bad person in any way. Something happens in your brain just like something could have happened in your heart or in your sugar levels as in diabetes. It is an illness just as is cancer or a flu bug. No one is to blame for the illness. It is simply an illness or a disease. The good news is that 90 percent of those who seek help during a mental health crisis will find recovery and good living once again.
Often times, unfortunately, the person in the midst of the crisis can not see that they are having a crisis. Their mind is not working properly and they do not see their need. It is then our duty as a community to help that person. It is not something to be made fun off, to take pictures of, or to walk away from. On these counts we failed to protect Swanson. It is a tragedy.
Unfortunately, it is not an isolated case. This one happened to end in death. Many more simply slip through the cracks, because we as a community don't have the time to help a fellow sojourner in need. We have our parties to attend, our football games to watch, our personal lives to live. Meanwhile Hernando County continues to lead the state in mental health crises.
My heart is heavy, but even more determined to advocate for mental health issues. I pray the Swanson family and Inga's friends and church friends will always cherish their memories of her.
David Welch is president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hernando.