By Pallas Hupé

Since the Roseville Galleria story broke, I’ve been struggling with the reaction to the suspect in this case. Understandably, one viewer called him a “terrorist” for admitting to setting the shopping mall on fire. Another viewer is furious, describing him more than once as a “spoiled punk” for knowingly doing something so destructive.  He pointed out how clearly the suspect explained why he did it (to get attention – because he felt abandoned) in a jailhouse interview our reporter David Begnaud conducted:

I too might feel this way, if it weren’t for what we’ve learned about this young man: he was diagnosed as bi-polar, and prescribed Prozac. Then he had a car accident which put him in a coma for three days. After that, his family says, he was prescribed Oxycontin. These are powerful drugs, used as treatment for two very powerful issues that alter people’s personalities beyond recognition: mental illness and a closed head injury.

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The reaction you have not heard to this story is in an e-mail I received from a local woman whose daughter was diagnosed as bipolar at the age of 12. She writes that her heart breaks for the suspect because she understands some of what the suspect, Alexander Piggee, is going through.

“We were delighted to get a diagnosis of bipolar because we knew what it was that changed our lovely daughter into someone we didn’t know. It was something we could learn about, something we could get help, medication, and treatment for.”

This mother points out her family was lucky because their daughter, who attempted suicide several times, was finally able to get:

“…. medications, treatment, hospitalizations we thankfully could afford because of insurance, and the sheer determination of both her parents to keep her alive.”

She adds:

 “I see is a family and a mental health system that let this kid down and he fell through the cracks, like so many of our kids do. After his cry for help, our society is willing to pay millions of dollars to fix a mall, many peoples’ lives are affected because they are out of work, the court costs for his trial will no doubt be phenomenal. If our mental health system was not as broken and he had gotten the help he so desperately needed, we would have spent much less money to save Alexander and avoided this terrible event.”

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I would argue that Alexander’s family tried to help him but after a certain point, just didn’t know how or where to turn. That’s part of the problem. There’s also another point, that I’ve made in the past: mental illness is society’s last taboo.

Again the sympathetic viewer writes:

“The stigma of mental illness is truly shameful in this country. Mental illness is an illness of the brain, which is the major organ of the body, so in my mind, Alexander is suffering from a major physical illness, and his life is ruined because no one would help.”

She and others are begging for someone to “focus more on the mental health aspect of this case and how its failure contributed to the destruction of one boy’s life, than on what a terrible person he was to do what he did…”

The young suspect in this case tried to get help but didn’t get enough. There’s not enough money in the system to make sure help is sustained, monitored and supported long enough to do any good. He spent three days in the hospital and was then let out with a prescription and no support.

The woman who e-mailed me relies on support from and volunteers for the National Alliance on Mental Illness: NAMI.

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To learn more about NAMI, contact: namicalifornia.org.  And keep your eyes open for a story I am working on about the mental health care crisis we face and what it means to your family.