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Opinion
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Our Opinion: Miguel Estrella's death is a tragedy and our mental health system is a catastrophe. Both should compel change

The death of Miguel Estrella was a heartbreaking tragedy. The loss of a young life in crisis and the unimaginable pain of his loved ones mark the scars of a society that continues to unsuccessfully wrestle with providing for the mental well-being of its citizens.

That is all true even as the circumstances of Mr. Estrella’s death did not amount to a crime. A thorough and transparently reported Berkshire District Attorney’s Office investigation came to the same conclusion as a Pittsfield Police Department internal probe. Both ruled a PPD officer was justified in use of force when he fatally shot Mr. Estrella, who police and bystanders say was emotionally distraught, intoxicated and approaching police with a knife after repeated commands and multiple taser deployments failed to stop him.

After announcing the conclusion of her office’s report at a news conference, DA Andrea Harrington turned over the microphone to Mr. Estrella’s sister, Elina. She fought through tears to underscore the crisis that has affected her family and countless others across America: “Miguel died because there’s something wrong with the way that we deal with mental health crises.”

The sad but glaring truth of that goes beyond the tragic events that played out on a spring evening on Onota Street. We, the people of America, have a mental health crisis. It has been deepened by digital-age atomization, pressurized by pandemic and made deadlier by an opioid epidemic, but at its core this is a catastrophe of care — or lack thereof for far too many. We have people — neighbors, friends, family members — who are sick or struggling or just need help, and the richest nation in the history of the earth can’t seem to deliver it to some who need it most.

Sometimes, they suffer in silence. Other times, it erupts in the saddest of headlines. It all amounts to the predictable outcome of a society that too often only notices and cares for mental health awareness when people are in extremis. This burden falls disproportionately hard on lower-income folks, people of color, children and other already vulnerable populations.

At a time when most people can’t agree on anything, nearly everyone agrees this is a shameful state of affairs. So what are we going to do?

Pittsfield moves to hire social workers and co-responders to help people in mental health crisis

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer’s plans to add positions like social workers to municipal health staff and the Police Department hopefully will help. Of particular importance are the mental health co-responder units that can accompany police to scenes where mental health crisis is a primary factor. The PPD currently has one of those co-responders, but it can’t cover a whole day. Any serious piece of emergency response should entail more robust coverage — whether that means multiple shifts, on-call hours or some combination thereof. This point was painfully driven home by the revelation that the PPD mental health co-responder’s shift ended just before the police’s first interaction with Mr. Estrella on March 25 — a call that ended peacefully but was followed by a second 911 call after Mr. Estrella became more distraught, which resulted in his death.

At the state level, the Legislature’s session-ending mad dash arguably overshadowed the importance of a landmark mental health law. The legislation, signed by Gov. Charlie Baker this week, targets several barriers to care. An expedited review process aims to ameliorate the so-called boarding crisis, which often leaves young patients in desperate need of acute mental or behavioral health care languishing in ER beds awaiting treatment. It also requires insurers to cover an annual mental wellness exam, similarly to yearly physical check-ups. That first-in-the-nation measure wisely seeks to leverage preventive efforts to hopefully stem costlier crisis response. Additionally, new incentive mechanisms are targeted at drawing more providers into the system, which could make a big difference in rural, underserved regions like the Berkshires.

These moves at Pittsfield City Hall and the Statehouse are not all-encompassing solutions to this sprawling, complex problem, but they are progress, if incremental and overdue. Real progress is important and worth noting, even as it is tempered by the sorrowful reality that it can’t bring back Mr. Estrella or all others we have lost to despair, distress and desperation. What we owe them, their families and their communities is to meaningfully reckon with this wicked problem and confront the difficult questions that come with not only pronouncing systemic change but acting on it.

The work to build and repair trust between police and vulnerable communities must improve. During Mr. Estrella’s first, nonviolent interaction with police on the night of March 25, the DA’s report notes that officers sought to help Mr. Estrella, but that he was skeptical and seemingly triggered by the arrival of more officers. One can be convinced of the officers’ genuine desire to help while simultaneously questioning whether we should be tasking already overburdened police departments with responding to nonviolent but distressed people. How can emergency responses be altered to lower the likelihood of tragic ends to these situations?

On the other hand, if Pittsfield and other cities will explore a heavier reliance on unarmed mental health response units, what should be the policies for sending them to — and protecting them within — situations that are not yet violent but are potentially volatile?

Most people agree we need a complete shift in our prioritization of mental health care. Are we as citizens — taxpayers and officials alike — willing to put our money where our mouth is and put our pronounced morals into policy action?

None of these is an easy question. None of the real answers will be simple or cheap or expedient. But for many like Miguel Estrella, they don’t have an easy choice in personally confronting the nation’s mental health crisis. They don’t have a choice at all. Mr. Estrella’s loved ones described him as big-hearted, hard-working, complicated — and burdened with deep trauma over which he had no control.

As a society, though, we do have a choice: We can continue to look away from the roots and mechanisms of this vexing problem and the vulnerable souls it steals — or we can confront it.

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