Protect those who need it mostThe horrendous murder streak committed by 42-year-old Ahn In-deuk — who started a fire in the apartment building he lived in to randomly kill neighbors running out of the building — could have been avoided if protections for civilians had worked properly. Administrative oversight of the mentally-ill has been negligent, and the police were slow to respond to civilian complaints. Five died and 10 were injured, yet the tragic event could have been avoided altogether.
Ahn had been reported to the police by his neighbors in Jinju, South Gyeongsang, five times this year. He shouted and scared neighbors, including children, with strange and violent behavior.
On four occasions, the police let him go. They briefly booked him once for property damage. The police ignored requests that he be isolated. Nine years ago, Ahn was arrested for attacking a university student with a knife and injuring his face. He was detained in a psychiatric ward for three years after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. The police would have known about his past, yet they did not bother to seek clinical assistance. The police have the authority to force a mentally-ill person posing danger to society to be admitted into the hospital with the approval of a licensed doctor.
Ahn’s family also attempted to get him care. Twelve days before the fire, his older brother called a hospital seven times to obtain medical documents to apply for a court order for treatment. But the hospital refused to issue them unless the patient came in person or authorized his brother to place him under care. This is the way the law works in Korea. The brother visited the prosecutor’s office, a district office and another state authority on legal assistance, but they all turned him down citing legal restrictions over involuntary commitment for mental health treatment.
Forced hospitalization is possible if a professional doctor or psychiatric expert makes a request to the local government. The police or a local government official could have simply asked a psychiatrist to examine Ahn. They either did not know or did not want to get involved.
After the mental health law was revised in 2017, it has become more difficult for a third person or family member to force involuntary hospitalization. The move requires approval from two doctors, which is impossible if patients like Ahn refuse to comply. The family also cannot obtain medical records unless they have the patient’s approval. The government and legislature toughened the regulations amid abuses in mental treatment, but they neglected to ensure protections for the family and others. Public safety is as important as drug abuse and the human rights of the mentally ill.
A state survey taken every five years showed that there are over 110,000 people suffering from schizophrenia in the country. The government must revise the isolation and treatment system for people who are severely mentally ill to prevent future disasters.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 23, Page 34