Mentally Ill: Modesto’s Tragedy is a Nation’s Tragedy

In Memoriam

Modesto lost a piece of its heart last month. News that Hanibal Yadegar’s wife Evin had been shot in Ripon by a Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriff drove pangs of anguish deep into the core of a community that years ago learned to love the Yadegars and their downtown restaurant.

If the Gallo Theater for the Arts is Modesto’s beating heart, Hanibal and Evin Yadegars’ Barkin’ Dog Grill is its heart’s main artery. Long a venue for Valley artists and musicians, “The Dog” has been an especially dear friend to the region’s poets, ranging from Fresno’s Lee Herrick to Modesto’s own laureates, Gillian Wegener and Stella Beratlis, among many others.

Evin Yadegar held a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from the University of California at San Diego and poured her talents into designing the Barkin’ Dog. Evin’s husband Hanibal routinely manages a tight bundle of roles as impresario, greeter, chef, maître-de, and gracious host for lovers of good food accented by the complementary spice of art, music, poetry, and friends.

In what amounted to an anguished cry of despair, Yadegar told police and reporters his wife was bipolar and suffering from a manic episode when she was shot in her car after a short chase.

“I see this all the time with the mentally ill who are homeless.He said. “We don’t understand it so we kick them to the curb, and this is what happened to my wife. And she paid with her life and it did not need to happen.”

Unfortunately, too many in our nation have lost the ability to empathize and will never comprehend the painful truth of Yadegar’s words. Only those who’ve tried and failed again and again fully realize how our tattered social safety net has become a gateway to tragedy for the mentally ill and their loved ones.

After decades of ill-founded propaganda about character, choice, and liberty, too many of us believe mental illness is a problem for families, churches and charities rather than doctors and hospitals. When these options fail, and they most often do fail, the alternative is intervention by police officers ill-equipped for the task.

In fact, law enforcement authorities nationwide have begun coming together in attempts to educate the public they serve about the tragic consequences of criminalizing mental illness. One of the most moving testimonies comes from a former police chief, Michael Biasotti, and his wife Barbara, a credentialed psychologist.

Despite decades of experience in law enforcement and unusual access to resources and services, the Biasottis were unable to deal with their daughter’s mental illness until she was compelled into treatment by a court order. They tell their stories in a short educational video sponsored in part by the New York Association of Chiefs of Police.

But law enforcement authorities aren’t the only experts trying to rouse a nation that’s become anaesthetized by the now too-common prevalence of mental illness in our news, on our streets, and in our jails. With minds crippled and hearts calloused by dogmas of denial, many of us still view mental illness as a character defect rather than as the serious medical problem it is.

“Many people thus defend the rights of homeless mentally ill persons to be ‘free’ to live on the sidewalk, under a bridge, or in jail,” writes Dr. E. Fuller Torrey in American Psychosis. “What they don’t realize is that most such people are not ‘free’; rather, their actions are dictated by their delusions and auditory hallucinations, however irrational those may be.”

It’s hard to imagine a more compassionate and capable man than Hanibal Yadegar, a husband, father, and success in one of the most demanding of all businesses. Yet like most everyone in his situation, Yadegar found there were no practical options available for his sick wife, even when housed and surrounded by loved ones. But even in the throes of overwhelming sorrow he was able to imagine the plight of people on the streets in the same situation. Absent court intervention, they too are treated like criminals.

Only county authorities can invoke court-ordered treatment for the mentally ill. In California, they do so by enacting Laura’s Law. Without authorization from Laura’s Law, families and friends can only hope their mentally ill loved ones voluntarily seek help. The catch-22 is that a high percentage of mentally ill people think they are perfectly sane and consistently refuse help even in the form of medication.

The widespread need for Laura’s Law almost never gets exposure except in cases of the death of a well-known or popular member of the community. Mentally ill homeless people routinely shuffle from the streets to jail and back again with virtually no publicity. And even Laura’s Law is only a tiny step forward in understanding and reducing the harm of mental illness throughout our nation, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Stanislaus County authorities are reviewing Laura’s Law now and need to hear from citizens how important it can be in preventing the unspeakable tragedies that result from abandoning our mentally ill loved ones to the mercies of a legal system designed to handle criminals, not sick people.

Most Valley residents are only five minutes or fewer away from a mentally ill person desperately in need of help families, churches and charities can’t provide. A great many of these sick people are homeless and therefore especially vulnerable. Modesto’s tragic loss is also a nation’s tragic loss and will never be mitigated until we stop criminalizing mental illness and recognize sick people need doctors and hospitals, not cops and jails.







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