Our opinion: The death of Miguel Estrella is a tragedy and our mental health system is a disaster. Both should force change | Editorials
Miguel Estrella’s death was a heartbreaking tragedy. The loss of a young life in crisis and the unimaginable pain of loved ones mark the scars of a society that continues to struggle unsuccessfully to ensure the mental well-being of its citizens.
The Pittsfield police officer who shot and killed a distraught man in March will not face criminal charges. The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office said on Friday that the officer’s use of lethal force on March 25, reviewed during a four-month investigation, was supported by law.
All of this is true even if the circumstances of Mr. Estrella’s death did not constitute a crime. A thorough and transparent investigation by the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office came to the same conclusion as an internal investigation by the Pittsfield Police Department. Both ruled a PPD officer was justified in using force when he fatally shot Mr Estrella, who police and bystanders said was emotionally upset, intoxicated and approaching police with a knife after repeated commands and multiple taser deployments failed to stop him.
After announcing the conclusion of his office’s report at a press conference, DA Andrea Harrington passed the microphone to Mr. Estrella’s sister, Elina. She broke through tears to highlight the crisis that has affected her family and countless others across America: “Miguel died because there’s something wrong with the way we deal with crises. mental health.”
The sad but glaring truth goes beyond the tragic events that unfolded one spring evening on Onota Street. We, the American people, have a mental health crisis. It’s been deepened by the atomization of the digital age, pressurized by the pandemic, and made deadlier by an opioid epidemic, but it’s essentially a disaster of care — or lack thereof for far too many people. We have people – neighbors, friends, family members – who are sick or in difficulty or who simply need help, and the richest nation in the history of the earth cannot seem to provide those who need it most.
Sometimes they suffer in silence. Other times it bursts into the saddest headlines. All of this amounts to the predictable outcome of a society that too often only notices and cares about mental health awareness when people are in the extreme. This burden falls disproportionately on low-income people, people of color, children and other already vulnerable populations.
At a time when most people can’t agree on anything, almost everyone agrees that this is a shameful situation. So what are we going to do?
Pittsfield decides to hire social workers and co-workers to help people in mental health crisis
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer’s plans to add social worker positions to city health care staff and the police department will hopefully help. Of particular importance are mental health co-responder units who can accompany police to scenes where the mental health crisis is a primary factor. The PPD currently has one of these co-sponsors, but he cannot cover an entire day. Any serious emergency response should involve more robust coverage – whether that means multiple shifts, hours on call, or a combination thereof. This point was painfully highlighted by the revelation that the PPD mental health co-respondent’s shift ended just before the first police interaction with Mr Estrella on March 25 – a call that ended peacefully but was followed by a second call to 911 after Mr. Estrella became more distraught, which resulted in his death.
At the state level, the end-of-session mad rush of the Legislative Assembly arguably overshadowed the significance of a landmark mental health law. The legislation, signed by Governor Charlie Baker this week, targets several barriers to care. A fast-track review process aims to improve the so-called boarding crisis, which often leaves young patients in desperate need of acute mental or behavioral health care languishing in emergency beds awaiting treatment. It also requires insurers to cover an annual mental wellness exam, similar to annual physical exams. This first step by the country seeks to leverage prevention efforts to hopefully stem a costlier response to the crisis. Additionally, new incentive mechanisms aim to attract more providers into the system, which could make a big difference in rural and underserved areas like the Berkshires.
These moves to Pittsfield City Hall and the Statehouse are not comprehensive solutions to this sprawling and complex problem, but they are progress, albeit incremental and overdue. Actual progress is important and worth noting, even if tempered by the sad reality that it cannot bring back Mr. Estrella or all the others we have lost to despair, distress and despair. What we owe to them, their families, and their communities is to meaningfully address this thorny issue and confront the difficult questions that come with not only enacting systemic change, but also to act accordingly.
Work to build and rebuild trust between the police and vulnerable communities needs to improve. In Mr. Estrella’s first non-violent interaction with police on the night of March 25, the prosecutor’s report notes that officers sought to help Mr. Estrella, but he was skeptical and apparently triggered by the arrival other officers. One can be convinced of officers’ sincere desire to help while wondering whether we should task already overstretched police departments with responding to non-violent but distressed people. How can emergency responses be modified to reduce the likelihood of these situations ending tragically?
On the other hand, if Pittsfield and other cities are considering relying more on unarmed mental health response units, what should be the policies for sending them to – and protecting them in – situations that are not not yet violent but potentially volatile?
Most people agree that we need a complete shift in our prioritization of mental health care. Are we, as citizens – taxpayers and public servants – ready to put our money where our mouth is and put our pronounced morals into political action?
None of these questions are easy. None of the real answers will be simple, cheap, or timely. But for many like Miguel Estrella, they don’t have an easy choice to face the nation’s mental health crisis personally. They have no choice at all. Those close to Mr Estrella described him as kind-hearted, hard-working, complicated and burdened by deep trauma over which he had no control.
As a society, however, we have a choice: we can continue to look away from the roots and mechanics of this thorny problem and the vulnerable souls it robs – or we can confront it.