Column: Treatment Denied Syndrome

Column: Treatment Denied Syndrome

Natasha McKenna’s blood is on all of our hands.

Natasha McKenna did not die from excited delirium. She died from Treatment Denied Syndrome.*

Commonwealth Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh’s 51-page investigative report about the death of the 37-year-old woman contains a horrifying litany of attempts by McKenna to seek help for her mental illness only to be met with ineptness and indifference.

Rather than being welcomed when she appeared in area emergency rooms, she either was shown the door without receiving help or was discharged before being stabilized. In one instance, she was stuffed into a cab less than four days after being so violent that she needed to be restrained to prevent her from harming herself or others. In another, a police officer and magistrate overruled a doctor who twice tried to get McKenna hospitalized. In a third, she was discharged from one INOVA hospital at 12:30 p.m., only to reappear at another INOVA emergency room at 10 p.m. on the same day. The medical personnel’s solution was not to help her but to call the police and have her arrested. Taken to jail, she was stripped naked, held in solitary and stuck in bureaucratic limbo for several days. When it came time to move her, she was stunned with a taser four times and died.

If the lack of treatment McKenna received while she was alive was not enough, she was further abused in death. Relying on “junk science,” Medical Examiner Dr. Jocelyn Posthumus declared the cause of McKenna’s death to be excited delirium — a make-believe syndrome not recognized as real by the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-9) of the World Health Organization.

No matter, that diagnosis allowed Fairfax Prosecutor Morrogh to drive in the final nail. Declaring at a press conference that McKenna possessed super-human strength and quoting a deputy who described McKenna as being demonically possessed, the Commonwealth Attorney stripped away what little dignity was left for this woman whose only real crime was that she got sick.

The release of a sheriff’s video of McKenna being removed from her cell — naked and afraid — visually disputed Morrogh’s characterizations. McKenna walked from her cell in handcuffs and was knocked to the floor by a squad of men who never showed any signs of losing control of her or of having their lives threatened.

This week, two important meetings could help set the agenda for change. On Monday Sept. 14, the Ad Hoc Police Practices Commission was scheduled to discuss the use of force by law enforcement in Fairfax. On Tuesday night, Sept. 15, community leaders planned to meet to discuss how to create a jail diversion system to keep individuals such as McKenna from being incarcerated. Nearly 50 community leaders attended the inaugural Diversion First meeting last month. (Morrogh did not.)

The ideas being suggested by Diversion First are not new. They were first brought to the attention of Fairfax officials more than a decade ago but were never implemented because of a lack of funding, a lack of interest and a lack of leadership.

Natasha McKenna paid with her life because of that. Who’s to blame?

Like the biblical Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Christ’s blood, nearly everyone who crossed paths with McKenna during the last month of her life can claim blamelessness. Thanks to Dr. Posthumus and Prosector Morrogh, McKenna is not only the victim but perpetrator of her own death.

The unanswered question is whether Fairfax County – its leaders and its citizens – have learned anything from this tragedy or if they will continue washing their hands and reassuring themselves that there was nothing any of them could do – after all, Natasha McKenna was mentally ill.

  • Treatment Denied Syndrome is a term first used by a long time National Alliance on Mental Illness advocate to describe our nation’s lack of mental health services and callous disregard for persons with mental disorders.

Pete Earley is author of 13 books including the New York Times bestseller ‘The Hot House” and the 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness;” former Washington Post reporter, a resident of Fairfax, and a member of the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission.