The Michael Stones of the future can be treated - but we must start now

Jayne Zito says potential killers in our midst are ignored
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LIKE EVERYONE else in the country, I was horrified when I heard of the dreadful crimes that took place in Chillenden in July 1996. I shuddered to think what kind of person could have committed such brutality to this happy family walking home along a country path. My fear then was that I would be looking, as I am now, at a man with a long history of violence and mental disorder.

Now that the trial of Michael Stone is over, everyone needs to try to understand what happened and why it should have been prevented.

At The Zito Trust we became involved in this case early for two reasons, The first is our role as the campaigning mental health charity concerned specifically with failures of community care for severely mentally ill people who commit homicide and violent attacks; the second is because the sister of Michael Stone, Barbara, contacted our support and advice service in November 1997, and we have had nearly a year to study the problems and issues raised by her brother's long history of violence, institutionalisation, and mental health problems, including serious drug abuse.

It became obvious before the trial that Michael Stone suffers from a very serious personality disorder, exacerbated by serious drug abuse. There was concern that he had been diagnosed as having schizophrenia, but West Kent Health Authority say not. We have to wait for the independent inquiry to report before we know the full and correct version of the facts.

He will have had this serious antisocial personality disorder for all of his adult life, and the seeds were sown in his childhood. His life history shows that from childhood he acted out his disturbance with crimes of theft, robbery and violence. He was in the care of social services from an early age, and it is a tragedy for him and for the Russells that more wasn't done at this stage to stop him before it became too late.

The failure to treat people like Michael Stone has consequences for all of us. What this case illustrates is that there is no coherent policy for the care of people like him who suffer from severe personality disorder. The child and adolescent services which could have intervened effectively early in Michael Stone's life - specifically the therapeutic communities - have been closed. Most adult psychiatrists are now reluctant to accept this disorder as a clinical illness requiring treatment and many will diagnose the disorder simply to get rid of people like Michael Stone from their services. There is a systematic refusal, often dangerous, to engage with people like him because they are too difficult and too violent, which is why they end up warehoused in prisons where treatment is practically non-existent.

Sixty-three per cent of men in prison on remand, and 49 per cent of sentenced male prisoners, suffer antisocial personality disorder. These contain the Michael Stones of the future. There is a pessimism about personality disorders rooted in the way psychiatry has moved further from "therapy' towards the exclusively medical model. We urgently need new long-term therapeutic facilities run, not by psychiatrists but as in Holland and other countries, by psychologists and psychotherapists.

These are the professions equipped for the difficult challenges posed by seriously disturbed patients. But they need Government backing.

We need to bring back therapeutic centres for treating severely disturbed children and adolescents, cynically reduced in recent years, so we can intervene early to stop damaged children from causing problems to society later.

It is difficult for someone like me to write objectively about the clinical and policy issues now being debated as a result of the recent trial. Every case involving homicide by someone who has been in contact with mental health services raises for me, as it will for many others, the memory of my own experience of loss.

What hovers in my mind as I try to give a sensible account of these issues is the harrowing, courageous press conference given by Shaun Russell on behalf of his wife Lin and daughters Megan and Josie. My feelings are even more acute now that I have a child of my own. My heart is with Shaun and Josie and their terrible loss.

Jayne Zito is patron at the Zito Trust, set up after her husband Jonathan was killed by a community care patient, Christopher Clunis, at Finsbury Park Tube station in December 1992.