January 09. 2013 11:56PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Mental illness comes calling

New Hampshire Union Leader

On Monday, physicians, mental health counselors, county officials, police and others held a rather ordinary news conference in Concord. In a nutshell, they warned that the system for treating the mentally ill is broken, thanks to years of budget cuts.

Four days earlier, that system crash-landed in the living room of Gabrielle Adams' Manchester apartment.

While sitting on the couch late last Thursday night, Adams was stunned when an unknown man ran into her living room.

The man acted frantically, running to every door and trying to open it. Two pint-sized dogs yapped away. The only light, from the living room flat screen TV, provided horror-movie ambiance.

Adams, who is 20, punched the young adult when he went for the bedroom door of her 12-year-old cousin. Her 15-year-old cousin hit the intruder with a bottle of hair spray.

"Who are you," Adams demanded.

"I don't know. I'm possessed," he shouted.

Eventually, he reached a little-used door leading into the front hallway and took off.

"He was kind of crazy," Adams said. "He looked crazy. I don't know; he could have been freaked out."

Police later found he had been living in the cellar of the two-family home. A sleeping bag, water bottle and empty cough syrup boxes remained in the basement over the weekend.

Adams and her family said they had never seen the squatter until Thursday, and had no idea how long he had been living beneath them.

Homeless people sleeping in cellars. Strangers running through living rooms saying they're possessed. Sure sounds like a broken system.

Elliot Hospital emergency room physician John Dwight Seidner, who was one of the doctors at the Monday press conference, said it's fair to say the case is unusual. But he said people can be stable - in this case it appears stable enough to live undetected in a cellar - until a psychotic episode hits.

"It's so significant, it distorts their perception of reality," Seidner said about an episode. When ill people try doors, they are looking for a figurative escape from their situation, he said.

He went on to say that the incident is an argument for a community-based system, which avoids institutionalization and expensive hospital stays by providing supports - counseling, therapy, jobs, group homes - for people where they live.

Adams, her aunt and two cousins live on the first floor of a two-family home on the first block of Ash Street, within the shadow of Central High School. She said the intruder likely accessed the cellar through the side door to the building. It opens into a small hallway, where one hallway door leads to the basement.

Adams acknowledged the side door is unlocked. Afterall, a pane of glass in the door is broken, so there is no way to secure it.

The man, whom Adams said appeared both scrawny and stout, burst into the apartment through a cellar door that opens into the kitchen. A small bolt secures the door, and the intruder broke the bolt when he forced the door open, she said.

Police caution that they're not sure the intruder was mentally ill. But they note that many homeless suffer from mental illness. A 2011-12 recent state tally reported that 1,175 of the 4,825 people in state-funded shelters suffered from mental illness, about 25 percent.

And while mental health workers and doctors make pitches for more funding, Manchester has taken a necessary but rather sad step to face the fact that this is New Hampshire, and there's not magic hat of unlimited money to help the mentally ill.

"We seem to deal with the same people over and over again," said police Lt. Ron Mello, who heads up the Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team. The team comprises 15 officers who have taken 40 hours of training on mental illness. Another seven are about ready to take the training.

The classes teach police how to identify people going through a crisis and how to de-escalate any potential for violence.

Mello, who's been with Manchester police for 21 years, said he can't say there are more mentally ill people in the community. But he said there are fewer hospital beds for them.

"I just know the resources are less," he said.

He said most mentally ill people are not violent. But the prospect of a Newtown, Conn., or Aurora, Colo., can no longer be ignored. Back to Ash Street. Adams had arrived home from volunteer work only a half hour earlier. Had she not been there, her 15- and 12-year-old cousins would have had to fend off their uninvited guest without her. About a half hour after the incident, the cousins' mother arrived home from her job as a sales clerk at a local department store.

"Then need to tighten it up more, not let people roam the streets," said Angela Holland, who rents the three-bedroom apartment. "I want my kids safe."


Mark Hayward's City Matters appears in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com on Thursdays. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.