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Failing to help the mentally ill comes with a steep cost | Editorial
A more robust system would help prevent more avoidable tragedies.
Dr. Charles Canaan Williams Jr., 70, died in a 2018 car crash in Temple Terrace. He was a lung-cancer specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center, a husband and a father.
Dr. Charles Canaan Williams Jr., 70, died in a 2018 car crash in Temple Terrace. He was a lung-cancer specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center, a husband and a father.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jul. 2

A Tampa driver who caused a high-speed fatal crash in 2018 was in the midst of a manic episode — one of many he’d suffered over two decades. The case, resolved in court in June, is a painful illustration of the high cost of failing to provide adequate funding and community support to mental health needs. Without proper care for mental illness, individual lives languish, families suffer and tragedy too often follows.

On March 28, 2018, Igbinosa Oghubor was traveling 95 mph on Fowler Avenue when he struck and killed Dr. Charles Canaan Williams, a well-known Tampa oncologist. Oghubor, who was not seriously injured, was seen wandering around after the crash and “eating grass,” according to prosecutors. He was charged with vehicular homicide but his attorneys argued — and prosecutors agreed — he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. At the time of the crash, doctors said, he was in a state of manic psychosis and unaware of his actions. A judge last week agreed he was legally insane, and ordered him to remain under a psychologist’s care and barred him from driving.

The ruling brought the criminal case to a close, but the wider problem persists. Oghubor had a long history of hospitalizations and dangerous manic episodes. Doctors said he once trashed a girlfriend’s house and threw a rock through her car window. He is stable when properly medicated but had been changing medications at the time of the crash that killed Williams, a lung cancer specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center who had been the first Black medical resident at Tampa General Hospital.

Another tragic case in 2018 stunned the New Tampa community, when a father and his two young sons were run down by an out-of-control driver. Pedro Aguerreberry died and his sons, who had been riding bikes on a pedestrian path, were injured. The driver, Mikese Morse, drove past the family on New Tampa Boulevard, made a U-turn, tore across a swath of grass and plowed into them. As in Oghubor’s case, attorneys are pursuing an insanity defense because Morse also has a long history of uncontrolled mental health problems. His family spent years trying to get adequate care for Morse, a college graduate and standout track athlete who had never been in trouble.

Too many families have seen the growing threat of mental illness in a loved one and found little support. Nearly 20 years ago, a mother in Pasco County made headlines when she was arrested for refusing to pick up her son from a behavioral health center where he’d been committed. She was afraid of him — he’d been setting fires and behaving violently and she knew it would continue without more treatment. Such is the desperation of families facing mental illness without adequate community resources.

Still, things have improved. Mental health is less stigmatized and better understood, and public policy in Florida is beginning to reflect that. Historically the majority of mental health calls to 911 have been handled by law enforcement officers, who were not well trained to handle them. The state’s Baker Act is generally the only tool at their disposal, but the short-term involuntary commitment the act allows is a poor substitute for ongoing treatment. Some municipalities are shifting resources to send counselors and social workers to those calls and direct people in distress to seek help. As harrowing as diseases like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be, they are also treatable. But it requires robust, sustained commitment and care.

Mental illness reaches into every community and is putting growing pressure on Florida’s health care system. There’s no shortcut around the resources required to treat people with known disorders, identify signs of illness early on and intervene before tragedy strikes. We can either pay to set up a more robust system or continue to suffer the costs in other, more devastating ways.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.