• Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Giving mental illness a bad name

In the early hours of June 13, 2023, in Nottingham, England, a 32-year-old man named Valdo Calocone came up behind two 19-year-old students walking along the street and attacked them with a knife, stabbing both of them to death. He moved to a hostel nearby and attacked the caretaker, a 65-year-old man, killing him. He jumped into the caretaker’s van and sped up the street, deliberately running into three people on the sidewalk and inflicting serious injuries on them.

Eventually, he was overpowered by the police and arrested.

On Thursday, January 24, this year, after a prolonged court hearing, he was sentenced to a ‘Hospital Order with Restrictions’, under Sections 37 and 41 of the UK Mental Health Act of 1983. The implication of this is that he will be detained at a high-security hospital for treatment and will not be released ‘until the Secretary of State for Justice or a First Tier Tribunal assesses that he no longer poses a threat to the public’.

A lot about the case of Mr Calocone has drawn the chagrin of many among the British public. He has left many families devastated by the loss or injury to their members, out of the blue and without any provocation. The three citizens he ran over with the van will carry grievous injuries all their lives.

 “Sensational stories like Mr. Calocone’s paranoid schizophrenia contribute to the belief that mentally ill individuals should be isolated and deemed dangerous.”

On another level, he has left the profession of Psychiatry, which is a difficult-enough occupation at the best of times since virtually everybody is society is a potential patient, scratching its head, not in bemusement, but in the delicate effort to draw fine lines of distinction between the different artificial pigeon-holes into which it has labelled mental disorders, and the nuanced consequences and complications that may occasionally arise from them.

So delicate was the assessment of Mr Calderone’s mental health condition, and so important was the need to ensure that the medical advice was perfectly right that three different top-of-the-line forensic psychiatrists were invited to see the man and decide if he was victim or villain, or something in between. The police had to get it right, knowing there would be a public backlash if they were seen as ‘soft’ on a ‘criminal’.

Did he, or did he not, have ‘Mens’ Rea’—the capacity to form an intention—in this case to murder three people and cripple and disable three others? Or did he have diminished responsibility, which would imply he knew what he was doing but was impelled to do it by some overweening circumstance or compulsion?

If the latter were true, he could not be tried for “murder,” but only for manslaughter, a lesser charge. That, it turned out, was what eventually happened.

Mr. Calocone, a meticulous and intentional killer, murdered two young students in the early morning. He believed he was being controlled by external forces and had sought help from M15, the UK internal security agency. He also sat outside his parents’ home at night, fearing a catastrophic event that would threaten his family. His actions were driven by a sense of danger and control.

In the eyes of the family members of the deceased, Valdo Calocone has gotten away with murder, literally. They are also aggrieved with the police over their failure to act on an arrest warrant that had been issued before the incident because of some incidents of assault against some fellow workers at Calocone’s workplace and against mental health staff who were meant to be supervising his mental health care in the community.

Read also: Bridging gaps for transforming maternal mental health in Nigeria

Valdo was born in 1991 in Guinea-Bissau. His family moved to Madeira, Portugal, when he was three years old, and from there to Lisbon. They finally emigrated to the UK in 2007.

Valdo first showed signs of mental illness in 2019 while a student at the University of Nottingham. He told people he believed he was being spied upon by M16 and that his family was in danger. He eventually saw a psychiatrist and was prescribed medication, but he did not take the medication or attend follow-up.

Sensational stories like Mr. Calocone’s paranoid schizophrenia contribute to the belief that mentally ill individuals should be isolated and deemed dangerous. This perspective has been a focus of mental health workers and advocates for years, arguing that most mental illnesses are non-psychotic and that psychotic conditions are a small minority. It is also true that, even among those with psychotic illnesses, unprovoked violence or dangerous classifications are rare, despite the fact that they happen.

In Nigeria, the challenges of how to balance the demystification and de-stigmatisation of mental illness with a realistic acceptance that occasional cases such as Valdo Caldorone will occur and society must not over- or under-react in managing them should be one of the focus areas in a necessary dialogue between the mental health profession, the justice system, and the police, in light of the recent enactment of a national Mental Health Act. As can be seen from the still-simmering outrage in the UK over Mr. Calocone, no society has yet devised a perfect formula for managing and judging disturbances of the mind.