One evening in May 2018, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher crashed his car at a highway exit in Richmond, Va. He got out of the car, naked and apparently in mental distress, and for several moments writhed on the ground. Then, with nothing in his hands, he stood, strode toward a police officer and lunged. The officer shot and killed him.
The death of the young man, Marcus-David Peters, has come up again and again in Virginia since Irvo Otieno died on March 6, after he was pinned to the floor by sheriff’s deputies for nearly 12 minutes at a psychiatric hospital in Petersburg. To his family and many others across the state, the death of Mr. Otieno, a 28-year-old musician with a history of mental illness, proves that despite incremental signs of improvement, Virginia’s mental health system is still profoundly flawed in how it responds to people in acute distress, especially when law enforcement agencies are involved.
“Having a mental health crisis cannot be a death sentence,” said Princess Blanding, Mr. Peters’s sister, who pushed for improvements to the system but believes that the changes that resulted from her brother’s death were still inadequate. “When a person’s kidneys fail them or their heart stops functioning, we don’t throw them in jail. Why are we doing that when their brains are not functioning the way they normally would?”
Mr. Otieno’s death minutes after sheriff’s deputies brought him to Central State Hospital falls into a bleak pattern that goes back years, in which a tragedy involving someone with mental illness inspires pledges of change until the next tragedy reveals how short the changes have fallen.
The 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech by a young man with a history of psychiatric problems prompted urgent calls for a greater investment
in mental health initiatives, but the recession that began later that year drained much of the funding that the state had allocated for it. An explosion of violence within a state lawmaker’s family in 2013 led to an overhaul
of how the authorities respond to people experiencing acute psychiatric episodes, but the pandemic exacerbated many of the problems they were designed to address.