Friday, July 13, 2012

China - US visitor's killing in China raises mental health concerns

The killing of a US visitor in Beijing, which police believe was committed by a man with schizophrenia, has raised fears over the handling of suspects with mental health problems.

The man An Libo was arrested shortly after an attack downtown on Wednesday in which Howard Thomas Mills, 62, was stabbed to death.

According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Mills was from Indian Hill, Ohio. On July 3 he arrived in Beijing on a business trip with his wife, a senior technologist at Procter and Gamble.

The US embassy in Beijing, however, declined to confirm any of the details when contacted yesterday.

The capital's public security bureau said on its micro blog that the 34-year-old suspect in the killing is from Zhaozhou county, Heilongjiang province, and had arrived in Beijing by train that morning.

What concerned many people was the news that An was also detained last year for a similar, but non-fatal attack in Shanghai, where, after being deemed mentally ill, he was put on a train home and effectively released back into the community.

Investigations into Wednesday's attack, which happened at the east entrance of Qudeng Hutong in Xicheng district at about 3:20 pm, are under way.

However, legal and health professionals warn that there are no strict guidelines for how police should deal with suspects with mental health disorders, which means that many people could be slipping through the cracks.

An associate professor in Beijing specialising in criminal investigation, who did not want to be identified, explained that, under the law, suspects who display telltale symptoms should receive a medical test. Those diagnosed with a severe mental illness should be admitted to hospital, he said, while those deemed "less serious" are usually released into the care of relatives.

"However, some authorities, especially in major cities, are inclined to send people with mental problems home, as they don't want to be responsible for the medical and supervision fees," the professor said.

Criminal records provided by a Shanghai police officer, who did not want to be identified, show that An was detained in the city's Zhabei district in January 2011 on suspicion of intentional injury with a knife and robbery.

"First, we get expert testimony to see whether a suspect really is mentally ill," he said. "If so, the suspect should be sent to hospital for treatment in that district."

An was evaluated at the Shanghai Mental Health Centre, which diagnosed him with schizophrenia and said he could "not be held criminally liable" for the robbery or stabbing.

A spokesman for the city's public security bureau was unavailable to comment yesterday. The authority has so far declined to say why the man was sent home.

According to Zhaozhou police, An arrived home on Aug 6 escorted by three Shanghai officers. He was placed in the care of his father, who is in his 60s, and was visited regularly by police.

However, his sister, Sun Liying, who lives in a different village, said yesterday there was no way her elderly father was in a condition to suitably care for him. Before traveling to Beijing on Wednesday, she said An had told their father he was simply going to Daqing city.

Experts are now highlighting his case to draw attention to the lack of unified regulations in the judicial system for people with mental health issues.

"Different cities have different rules," the associate professor in Beijing said. "Major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai can easily cope with cases (like An's) in line with their regulations, but instead they often send mentally ill people home to save money.

"However, in some poor areas, they do not have guidelines to deal with these kinds of problems at all."

Huang Xuetao, an attorney in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, who specialises in cases that involve mental health, agreed and added that many families are unable to properly care for such people, emotionally or financially.

"In the case of those patients who pose a serious threat to the public, authorities must intervene in their supervision, and not just send them back home," she said. "Some of these people could be a threat to themselves, their families and others."

A revised Criminal Procedure Law, which includes articles on mental health, will come into effect in January. However, Liu Ruishuang, an associate professor at Peking University's health science centre, said it still lacks practical and specific measures.

"We urgently need specific rules to cover mentally ill people," he said. The government is still working on a mental health law, yet Liu said introducing professional regulations would be quicker and more effective. "The management of mentally ill people involves many administrations, so balancing every department's interest is indeed a complicated challenge," he added.

Cao Yin/Zhou Wenting/Zhou Huiying
China Daily

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