Cuts to mental health services have fatal results in Ithaca
In June 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that examined young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 with serious mental health illness. The report found that at least 2.4 million young adults had a serious mental illness in 2006, in addition to having lower levels of education than other young adults.-
Catherine Wedge is a community educator for the Tompkins County Mental Health Association, a non-profit organization with the goal of connecting people to mental health services. She said mental health agencies in Tompkins County and New York state have been experiencing drastic budget cuts in recent years.
“The last couple of years have been far worse, far bleaker,” Wedge said. “We got cut $12,000 this year and this coming year we anticipate another $12,000. Plus, there’s rumors there will be 8 percent cuts across the state.”
The GAO report also noted that young adults with mental health illness have trouble getting the services they need to transition into adulthood. Wedge said that partly has to do with stigma.
“People with mental health illness are best kept out of sight and out of mind,” Wedge said. “That has to do with stigma, which is one of the reasons individuals with mental illness are unable to get the services they need in order to recover.”
“The cops just shot Keith!”
On the night of Aug. 25, 20-year-old Keith Shumway attacked a uniformed officer who was filling out paperwork at a Citgo gas station at 435 W. State St. Keith reached through the car window and ripped the gun from the officer’s duty belt and fired a shot that grazed the officer’s leg. The injured officer called for backup.
Backup officer Brandon Goldsberry, whose name was kept confidential at the time, told Keith to drop the gun. Keith pointed the gun at Goldsberry. After repeated warnings to drop his weapon, Goldsberry shot Keith.
This was the account recorded by the Ithaca Police Department. The identity of the police officer that was reportedly shot in the leg has not been released.
Mary Ann Walters-Sokol was sleeping at her house on South Corn Street when a neighbor who heard the gunshots came over to wake her up. She walked down to the corner of State Street to see what had happened. Walters-Sokol was aware of Keith’s history with mental illness and feared how the police reacted.
“He was visibly more and more depressed every week,” she said.
After hearing the account of the incident from the Ithaca Police Department, Walters-Sokol said she was, and still is, skeptical of the report.
“How is it going to be that he can reach into the driver’s side, past the steering wheel, past the cop’s belly and get the gun from a holster?” Walters-Sokol said. “This is just a case of another kid being shot by the police, and they’re gonna get away with it because people don’t want to step forward. They’re afraid of the Ithaca Police Department.”
The case has been loosely compared to that of Shawn M. Greenwood, an Ithaca resident who was shot by an on-duty police officer in Feb. 2010. Various New York police departments had obtained a search warrant for Greenwood, who they believed was involved in drug trafficking.
On the night of Feb. 23, Greenwood was in the parking lot of Pete’s Wine & Liquor store on West Buffalo Street when two Ithaca cops approached him with the warrant. Panicking, Greenwood attempted to flee the scene, striking an unarmed Dryden police officer with his vehicle in the process.
Greenwood’s relatives, friends and the general community came out and harshly criticized the way the police handled the event, which has not been the case with Keith.
Walters-Sokol said she is frustrated that witnesses have not spoken out.
“What angers me is that people know the truth and they’re not letting it out,” Walters-Sokol said.
A Lost Soul
Keith Thomas Shumway was born July 7, 1991. His grandparents raised him in the small town of Harvey’s Lake, 15 miles northwest of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. As his grandparents approached old age, they decided their grandson could use a change. In Oct. 2009 Keith moved in with his aunt and cousin in Ithaca, N.Y.
Keith was living with his aunt and cousin at their home on Cleveland Avenue without attending college or maintaining a steady job. His aunt, Diane Shumway, contacted Rick Alvord, a close friend and a volunteer at a local Youth Outreach Program, an independent living program that seeks to help teenagers become independent adults through apprenticeships, work programs and hands-on learning experiences.
Alvord said Shumway expressed her desire to get her nephew off the couch and help him find some form of employment. Alvord landed Keith an apprenticeship at Loaves and Fishes, a local non-profit agency providing meals and other services for those in need. After conducting an evaluation assessing Keith’s attitude, dependability and willingness to work with others, Alvord said Keith did very well, though he admitted something seemed off about Keith.
“You got the sense that there were some mental health issues going on,” Alvord said. “Sometimes he would come in brooding or upset, other times he was kind of jovial.”
By Nov. 2009 Alvord had set up Keith’s first meeting with a therapist at Tompkins County Mental Health Clinic. According to Alvord’s case notes, Keith was making his appointments and receiving medication until Feb. 2010, when Alvord said Keith grew frustrated with the system.
While living in Ithaca, Keith became close with one of his aunt’s neighbors, Walters-Sokol. He began doing odd jobs for her, such as heavy lifting, pulling weeds and reorganizing her garage.
Keith’s cousin Fatima Bintu said he had a natural instinct to help others.
“He would go out of his way to make people happy,” Bintu said. “No matter what, he would do anything for anybody, even people he didn’t know. That’s the type of person he was. He might not have cared so much about himself, but he cared enough about everybody else.”
A Turn for the Worse
In April 2011, Walters-Sokol began to notice a change in Keith’s behavior. She said he seemed more and more depressed.
“It was like there was a black hole and it was pulling Keith in,” Walters-Sokol said.
Alvord said he saw Keith less frequently in the months leading up to the shooting.
“It’s hard for me because I really did make a conscious effort not to reengage with Keith, and the results, as they were, it’s hard for me to start to think about,” Alvord said. “But I’m not sure what a program like ours could have done to help him.”
Just weeks before the shooting, Keith had an incident with the police. Walters-Sokol came home one night to find several cop cars and an ambulance a few houses down from her residence. She saw an intoxicated Keith acting violently toward two Ithaca Police officers. After Walters-Sokol explained to them he had mental illness, the officers decided not to charge him and instead took him to Cayuga Medical Center, an area hospital.
After arriving at the hospital, he was put in 4-point restraint, a method that consists of strapping one’s arms and legs securely to the bed, used when a patient is considered a threat to themselves and to others. He was also heavily sedated.
Keith woke up four hours later. Two nurses evaluated Keith as his aunt and cousin explained to them his history of mental illness. They begged the nurses to admit Keith, but they would not do it.
“Me and my mom were kind of happy that happened because we really thought they were going to admit him,” Bintu said. “That would have been the best help he could have ever gotten.”
The Future of Mental Health
On Nov. 4, a Tompkins County grand jury determined that the Ithaca Police officer’s shooting of Keith Shumway was justified.
Cayuga Medical Center’s decision to deny Keith admittance, despite pleas from friends and relatives, may be just as lethal as the bullet that took his life.
Denials of assistance for mental health are not uncommon. Some have also had fatal results. In 2009, a young man murdered his mother in Cayuga Heights — 12 hours after his mother tried to have him admitted to the Cayuga Medical Center. The center refused to admit him.
In addition to losing revenue in the form of state aid, Tompkins County has been cutting costs to its mental health services over the past several years. Since 2009, funding for the Tompkins County Mental Health Clinic has gone down $876,000. In 2012, it will be cut another $72,000. In the Tompkins County Mental Health Department, 10 full-time positions have been lost since 2009, and another four will be lost in 2012, according to the 2012 budget for Tompkins County.
With cuts to mental health services likely to increase in the coming years, mental health agencies are forced to cut costs within their own departments to make ends meet. Similarly, if a hospital like Cayuga Medical Center lacks sufficient resources for mental health patients, incidents of patients being turned down may increase.
Wedge, whose organization relies on funding from the New York State Office of Mental Health, said more and more agencies are being asked to provide more services with fewer funds, and the cuts to mental health services could have broader impacts on society.
“I’m frightened, not for myself,” Wedge said. “I’m frightened because I really don’t think the public or even a lot of legislators understand the consequences of not providing adequate community services to individuals who have a real need.”
Pete Blanchard is a senior journalism major. Email him at pblanch1[at]ithaca[dot]edu