Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane
The Pennsylvania mental health system was criticized over this incident and for their handling of Seegrist over the years. Not only had there been incidents of violence with her, with only minimal hospitalization, but two weeks before the most deadly incident, she had placed a call to a psychiatrist. Rather than being invited to come in, she was given an over-the-phone prescription refill for a drug to calm her anxiety.
But psychologists and psychiatrists pointed out that the civil rights movement during the 1970s on behalf of the mentally ill had ensured that they cannot be institutionalized without a violent incident. Even if they needed hospitalization, once they were restored to calmer behavior, they were to be released. That meant that, for their rights to be protected, society could be vulnerable to the occasional rampage. Most such patients were not violent, so they should not have to have their rights curtailed for the sake of those few who were.
Schizophrenia commonly strikes during adolescence, affecting about one percent of the population. Such people become increasingly disoriented within their environment and disorganized in their thinking, and may show mildly aggressive outbursts. Potentially violent behavior can usually be controlled with anti-psychotic drugs.
Yet in 1980, Seegrist had been committed to the Tricounty Fountain Center and was eventually transferred to a hospital setting. After three weeks, she returned to Tricounty, where on her second day she stabbed a counselor in the back with a paring knife. That got her a stint in jail and a transfer to a forensic hospital. Instead of going to court, as the facility requested, she was sent for rehabilitation and then discharged back into the community. Her victim objected that Seegrist was too dangerous for that. She told a judge that Seegrist had often expressed a desire to get a gun and shoot people. That statement was strikingly prescient---and tragically ignored.
With the Seegrist case commanding headlines, debate about the correct treatment for the mentally ill was on. Plenty of mental health professionals wanted better parameters for involuntary commitment, but they had been stymied by legislation that failed to understand the danger of throwing mentally ill people, unprepared to live on their own, into the population at large. By some estimates, this accounted for as many as 15% of those who were released. That was a lot of people without resources who would only become more confused and helpless.
The papers quoted Dr. Edward B. Guy, director of Hahnemann Mental Health Services in the Philadelphia prison system as saying that, "It's very frightening to see violence in a schizophrenic." He said that such violence would likely be repeated and the mental health system should be able to hold such a person involuntarily. He believed that structure and continued treatment was essential. Laws that required an actual incident within 30 days of committal were not good for patients or for society.
But there were those who opposed changing the laws, citing instances of excessive hospitalization in the past for those who had not needed it. Putting too much power over these decisions into the hands of psychiatrists risked abuse and a violation of individual rights. There were instances of that and no guarantee that it would not happen again.
Due to the Seegrist incident and the concerns expressed in the mental health community, Common Pleas Court Judge Lois G. Forer looked into changing the laws to allow the testimony of two board-certified psychiatrists regarding a person's potential dangerousness to be sufficient for commitment. She formed a task force to study the problem, with the intent of changing legislation on a national level.
The Inquirer published two more tragic accounts of mentally ill people being handled badly within the system. Samuel Guess, 44, was picked up for directing traffic in the nude. After being released, he returned to the police station with a baseball bat and was shot down and killed as he came at several officers. Another person who had died was Mitchell Miller, Jr., 35, who had been taken to an emergency room for potential commitment. Left in a police van for hours on a hot day, due to overworked resources, he succumbed to the heat.
And it was not as if Seegrist had not been seeking help. Six months before the incident, she had called a psychiatrist at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. He invited her to see him and gave her a prescription for Xanax to reduce her anxiety. He never saw her again, but did get a call to renew the prescription. He had phoned it in to the Rite Aid drugstore at the Springfield Mall.