Looking out for the mentally ill

August 25, 1993

Had George F. Berry III been a child, the police would have been looking for him within hours after he was reported missing. Even if he had been an Alzheimer's patient who wandered from a nursing home, authorities would have quickly initiated a thorough search.

But Mr. Berry was neither a child nor an elderly person. He was a mental patient.

When he escaped over a fence at the Crownsville Hospital Center on July 10 -- a day so searingly hot that a person with fragile health could not be expected to last long -- no one even bothered to look. His body was found by a motorist 19 days later, just 1 1/2 miles from the hospital grounds.

Mr. Berry's death is a disgrace, symptomatic of a nation that treats the mentally ill with less concern than it shows most pets.

In Maryland, hospitals do next to nothing to find escaped mental patients. Hospital procedures -- which Crownsville staffers followed -- require only that hospital grounds be searched and that the State Police be notified.

But unless the patient has been ordered to a psychiatric facility by the court, usually as part of a criminal sentence, police don't conduct an active search; all they do is issue a general missing persons broadcast so local police can question anyone answering to that description. As far as the hospital is concerned, the patient is on his own once he leaves the grounds.

Such negligence is unacceptable. Society recognizes the need for prompt action when an elderly person disappears, since many old people are in delicate health, on medication and easily disoriented.

The mentally ill are no different. It is ridiculous that people who are sick enough to be committed to state care are deemed responsible for their own safety should they escape or wander off.

Since the Berry tragedy, advocates for the mentally ill have been demanding that police search actively for missing patients. And Dr. Haroon R. Ansari, who took over as superintendent of Crownsville the same week Mr. Berry's body was found, has been refreshingly honest about the senselessness of the current policies.

He has ordered a review of these policies, agreeing that they do not go far enough to protect patients.

These are hopeful signs. Perhaps if those agencies responsible for the mentally ill start showing more concern for them, so will everyone else.

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