Mental illness and crimes go hand-in-hand.
The lawyer of a Beulaville man who pleaded guilty to murder in July said his client was depressed and anxious, losing weight and sleep in the two months leading up to him fatally shooting his wife’s lover.
At the plea deal hearing for a woman who fatally shot her husband, she twitched in her seat, continuously moved her jaw and bounced her legs through the proceedings. Her lawyer said her actions were out of character and she’d attempted suicide in jail twice.
While the plea deals have been signed in those cases, one Onslow County mother is handling her son’s case right now.
From high schooler to hospitalized
Antonio “Toni” Robertson, 19, is autistic and bi-polar with ADHD and an anxiety disorder, said his mother, Suzette Iris Richart.
Although Robertson has a form of high-functioning autism, Richart said he understands at an elementary level and has an IQ of 76.
He was a homebound Dixon High School senior in the fall of 2016 and was working with an Onslow County teacher three days a week with the goal of, hopefully, reintegrating back into school in January, Richart said.
But that was before Robertson was arrested, accused of stabbing a runner in the back.
Robertson was charged by the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office with assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury on Oct. 17.
Robertson had been at Good Hope Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Erwin, since October and was recently release back into his mother’s care.
Now Robertson is mixed up in the court system, and Richart said it’s making everything a lot more difficult to handle, especially with the lack of mental health facilities in Onslow County.
Officials are working on fixing that.
De-escalating the problem
There is an abundance of people with mental illnesses in Onslow County — on average adults in Onslow County said their mental health was not good four days each month, according to County Health Rakings, and suicide was listed by the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics as the No. 1 cause of death in Onslow County people under 30 from 2010 to 2014.
Because of this, Jacksonville Police Department Chief Mike Yaniero has his officers focus on de-escalation techniques.
Out of the 98 patrol officers at the Jacksonville Police Department, Yaniero said 60 of them have gone through Crisis Intervention Training. The Onslow County Sheriff’s Office, EMT professionals, and Jacksonville Fire and Emergency Services have begun training as well.
During the training these first responders go through role-playing exercises to learn de-escalation techniques, Yaniero said.
The goal, he added, is to have every officer trained.
Half of police shootings involve someone with a mental illness, Yaniero said, making it incredibly important for officers to be trained not only in recognizing mental illness but in how to handle a situation with someone battling something internally.
“If we can better address that, we can actually reduce the number of police shootings,” he said.
In Jacksonville, Yaniero said police shootings are not a frequent occurrence but there’s always the potential. Shootings ultimately result in outrage and riots, as seen in other towns across America, and classes like CIT help prevent that from happening here.
Ultimately, it makes Jacksonville a safer town for the community and for the officers protecting that community, Yaniero said.
During his 27 years in law enforcement, 22 of them at Camp Lejeune with NCIS, Robin Knapp said he became aware of the mental health issues Onslow County faces and how many crimes are connected to mental illness.
Mental illness is apparent in some domestic violence situations, he said. It’s often a silent disease that’s not recognized until something violent happens, he said, like a man becoming overwhelmed and lashing out at his wife.
It’s not the fault of the person, Knapp said. Without proper treatment for a disease, the criminal aspect is more likely to come into play.
Knapp, who was recently elected to the Onslow County Board of Commissioers, made the rise in drug addiction and mental health issues one focus of his campaign.
Those with a mental illness are also more likely to misuse drugs, Knapp said.
Something Yaniero echoed.
“The line between substance abuse and mental health is very blurred,” Yaniero said.
If there were treatment centers available in Jacksonville, Yaniero has said on multiple occasions his officers would take someone with a drug addiction or suffering from a mental illness to the treatment center in lieu of jail.
As of now, Yaniero said when his officers arrest someone with a mental illness there aren’t many options for treatment.
If they are a danger to themselves or others, they go to the hospital, he said.
If not, they go to jail.
“A lot of times they’re released without any real treatment,” Yaniero said.
Treatment center vs. jail
A lot of people jog in Robertson’s neighborhood, his mother said, and have never had an issue with the 19-year-old.
Robertson does not have access to any weapons at home, Richart said, but she learned a neighborhood kid had given her son a knife prior to Robertson’s arrest.
Originally Richart was told if her son left Good Hope, he would be put in jail until his next court date, which is scheduled for March 6.
“Him being back in jail just enables him to regress in treatment and all the forward progression that he’s made . . . would have been for nothing,” Richart said.
Because of her son’s age, Richart was not allowed access to his medical records until she was appointed as his legal guardian, which didn’t happen until Nov. 29 when Robertson was legally characterized as mentally incompetent, she said.
In her search to help her son, Richart said she found no long-term treatment facilities in North Carolina. She also had trouble when searching in South Carolina.
“He’s been denied in-patient treatment due to autism from one place, and from an autism specialist facility (he was) denied because he’s bipolar,” Richart said.
So Robertson might not have been arrested if he’d been going through proper treatment?
“Yes, that is what I believe,” Richart said.
One of Yaniero’s ideas for Jacksonville is having a center designed for de-escalation purposes.
Ideally, Yaniero said the center would be open 24 hours a day and be a resource for families and law enforcement. Patients would have the space and time to calm down while a plan is worked out to get them the treatment they need.
Yaniero thinks it’s a plan that could be implemented locally, and Knapp agreed.
“I’m tired of people saying, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that,’” Knapp said.
Deciding what committees they wanted to be part of was one of the first actions taken by the newly-elected Onslow County Board of Commissioners, he said. Almost immediately, Knapp joined Trillium Health Resources mental health board. Trillium is a specialty care manager company for people battling substance use, mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities, Communications Director Jennifer MacKethan said.
“Trillium’s mission is to transform the lives of people in need by providing them with ready access to quality care,” MacKethan said.
Knapp hopes as a commissioner and as part of the mental health board he can turn Onslow County’s focus onto mental health.
“I think we need to make mental health a priority,” Knapp said.
He plans to do that by finding out what agencies are being given funds for mental health and how those funds are spent in an effort to increase the services and availability of mental health treatment.
“I didn’t just throw it out there for a vote. I threw it out there because I’m passionate about it,” Knapp said of his mental health platform. “We need to make sure we do what we can for our citizens, period.”