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The Involuntary Psych. Commitment Debate Continues

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Demian Bulwa has this story in the SF Chron on a tragic case of mental illness:

In the 4 1/2 years that Candy and Al Dewitt spent trying to save their son, only to see him cycle in and out of psychiatric hospitals with schizophrenia, they came to a stark conclusion: Someone needed to impose the treatment he refused.

They told doctors, friends and peers in support groups of their fear - that, left alone, 23-year-old Daniel would fall prey to the paranoid thoughts in his head.

The morning of Feb. 19 offered a respite. They took their daughter's son to the Oakland hills with a hat, whip and boots for an Indiana Jones-themed photo shoot. Then reality yanked back.

"The worst thing you'd ever have expected could happen," Candy said, "finally happened."

Returning to Alameda, they found a stream of phone messages from friends who had been watching the news. "I'm sorry," the friends said, again and again, without elaborating.

Fearing the worst, Candy finally screamed: "He's dead!"

The truth was even more horrific. Daniel was in jail, accused of killing a total stranger the night before in the Berkeley hills as he searched for "Zoey," his imaginary fiancee.

Six months later, Daniel is at Napa State Hospital, ruled incompetent to stand trial for the slaying of Peter Cukor, 67. He is also at the fore of a pivotal debate in mental health, with his and Cukor's family saying the bloodshed could have been averted if he had been compelled to accept treatment instead of being set loose.

About 1 percent of adults in this country have schizophrenia, which can blur the line between what is real and what is not. Many lead rewarding lives and only a small percentage commit violence. But studies have linked violence and suicide with psychotic symptoms such as paranoid delusions.

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[Daniel] was held in November and again in December, when a John George [county mental hospital] psychiatrist ruled he was in such bad shape that he needed at least two more weeks in the hospital. To his parents, what happened when Daniel opposed the hold was a critical mistake.


Under state law, he was granted an advocate and a hearing in front of an attorney appointed by the courts. Such hearings typically last less than an hour. In this case, the psychiatrist was overruled, and Daniel was discharged.

Qvistgaard said the hearings were another collision of ideals.

"Patients need to have rights, and at the same time, they need good clinical care," he said. "There are going to be times when the two systems have disagreements."

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According to police, Berkeley resident Peter Cukor confronted Daniel at 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 18 and ordered him off his property. Daniel instead said he was a psychic and "was told to go through the gate to find Zoey." After Cukor lost sight of him and walked down his driveway, police said, Daniel beat him with a flower pot.


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Another preventable tragedy.

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