An unedifying tale for all concerned

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The Independent Online

It is undeniable that being stabbed by an insane intruder bent on killing you in your own home in the middle of the night is a traumatic experience, particularly if the possibility of such an occurrence has haunted you for 20 years. But even so, the assertion by George Harrison and his wife Olivia that diminished responsibility due to severe paranoid schizophrenia is an "ancient law" that "provides a loophole" rather cools the sympathy one feels towards the couple.

It is undeniable that being stabbed by an insane intruder bent on killing you in your own home in the middle of the night is a traumatic experience, particularly if the possibility of such an occurrence has haunted you for 20 years. But even so, the assertion by George Harrison and his wife Olivia that diminished responsibility due to severe paranoid schizophrenia is an "ancient law" that "provides a loophole" rather cools the sympathy one feels towards the couple.

So, too, under the circumstances, does their further hope that "the growing violence in society is controlled and ultimately replaced by the goodness of most people in the world". This is a jolly splendid little platitude, but the fact is that recognition and understanding of mental disorder by the "good" people is pretty much a prerequisite if such a hoped-for transformation is actually to occur.

In particular, people have better to understand schizophrenia, for this is the most common of severe mental illnesses. One per cent of the population, or 600,000 Britons, are reckoned to suffer from some form of schizophrenia, which manifests itself in mental disturbance, delusions, hallucinations and paranoia. A quarter of those treated make a good recovery, half go on to suffer infrequent symptoms and another quarter continue to suffer frequent episodes.

There is understood to be a genetic element in schizophrenia, with the child of one schizophrenic parent having around a one-in-eight chance of developing it. It is also an illness that can develop after trauma, and some psychiatrists argue that this element could be just as important as the genetic one. Brain-scan research has shown that there are substantial changes in the schizophrenic brain in the early stages of the illness, which include lower brain volume and less grey matter containing brain cells.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it now seems astonishing that no one ever mentioned to Mr Harrison's attacker, Michael Abram, that he may have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Three psychiatrists diagnosed it prior to his trial, and his medical notes suggest that the diagnosis first emerged in 1990. Abram would have been 24 at that time, and was probably already very ill. The illness is most likely to develop during adolescence or in the early twenties.

It is reported that a succession of doctors failed to diagnose paranoid schizophrenia because Mr Abram was a drug-user. He started using drugs in his teens, as many schizophrenics do, as a form of self-medication. Mr Abram himself has said that using heroin "stopped the voices", and some psychiatrists admit that there is a certain twisted logic to this kind of self-medication.

This sort of use of illegal drugs is actually fairly widespread, and doctors should be more aware of the fact that drug use sometimes is a symptom of mental illness rather than a cause. Instead, in Mr Abram's case, the misjudgements and misdiagnoses appear to have gone on and on. One particular irony is that Mr Abram was admitted to a psychiatric ward six weeks before the attack, but was sent home after two weeks for allegedly assaulting a nurse.

Again, this cannot have been pleasant for the nurse in question. But at the same time, it's an odd kind of policy that dictates that the best thing to do with violent people in psychiatric wards is to send them home. God alone knows what Mr Abram's mother, Lynda Abram, must have made of this. The poor woman had tried and failed to get her son sectioned in 1990. Finally he was in a ward, and then he was out again within a couple of weeks.

Mrs Abram has come out of the whole tragic story rather well. She seems to have realised what was going on with her son all along, even if she was unable to get for him the help he needed. In her statement to the media, she made succinct points about the failure to help her son, and expressed her regret that his illness had to reach such shattering proportions before he could get the help he needed and wanted.

Awful as it must have been for her to come to terms with her son's crime, his trial and his indefinite incarceration in a secure psychiatric hospital, Mrs Abram seems almost relieved that this turn of events has put her son in an appropriate place at last. The Harrisons, on the other hand, Buddhist or not, seem far from happy about it. Their statement suggests that "the jury was given no real choice in this matter" - as if there were other sensible ways of dealing with this severely ill man. What can they be on about?

Their worry, clearly, is that Mr Abram will be out again in no time, having taken his medication like a good boy, and having told his psychiatrists what he knew they wanted to hear, in order to track the Harrisons down and finish off the job he started. This is why they hired eminent QC Geoffrey Robertson to plead for them to be kept informed of future decisions about Mr Abram. "Mr and Mrs Harrison are not merely victims but continuing targets. The psychosis is bubbling under the surface. It is not cured."

The Harrisons also proclaimed in their statement that they believed that "victims of crimes of violence should have the right to be heard at all appropriate times." This is dangerous nonsense - particularly inappropriate in a case such as this in which mental illness is involved.

It also is not terribly Buddhist. Though one shouldn't make fun of the victim of such an awful crime, Mr Harrison's brand of Buddhism doesn't shine too brightly throughout this episode. Of course, he couldn't have known at the time that the reason why Mr Abram was in his mansion stabbing him was because he believed him to be a witch who talked in the devil's tongue. But it is most unfortunate that his way of attempting to repel the attack was to shout "Hare Krishna" at the violent lunatic assailing him.

His wife's reaction, which was to attack Mr Abram herself with a poker and a lamp, was unfortunately much more sensible under the circumstances. While, again in the statement, the Harrisons emphasise that "we shall never forget that he was full of hatred and violence when he came into our home," they would do well to remember that when the chips were down they discovered untapped sources of hatred and violence in themselves, without the back-up of having suffered for at least a decade from what has been described as "the worst disease affecting mankind". This hatred and violence saved Mr Harrison's life. It would be pleasingly spiritual if it were to result in the saving of Mr Abram's sanity as well.

In the meantime, the thought of the hopelessness and terror of Mr Abram's life prior to his outburst is the bleakest part of this unedifying tale. Living in squalor on a "socially excluded estate", mocked by local children because of his white hair as "sheep-head", and collecting methadone as the only medical intervention when he was actually suffering a disease for which effective drugs are available, Mr Abram is a man whose fortunes didn't change for the better until he took a pop at a celebrity.

It is remarkable that he did not fall foul of the law long before this, joining the ranks of the many paranoid schizophrenics serving sentences in Britain's "normal" prisons, and still managing to procure the drugs they self-administer as their only form of treatment. Do the Harrisons really believe that this would have been a better outcome for their attacker? The "ancient loophole" of which they speak so bitterly should be maintained and extended, not closed off.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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