Aaron Bassler—A Mental Health Tragedy?
Aaron Bassler in a Fort Bragg High School photo
The following is a guest post by Skippy Massey:
35-YEAR-OLD murder suspect Aaron Bassler’s death brings to an end 16 years of what his family has described as “a slow motion train wreck.”
AARON BASSLER was a shy but seemingly normal boy until his late teens, when he began a dark descent into mental illness, according to his family. He played baseball and had a job delivering newspapers, according to his family. “He was fine. He was happy,” his father, James Bassler, said. But that changed when Aaron reached the age of 18 or 19, according to family members, who believe he suffered from schizophrenia.
BASSLER had at least nine brushes with the law since he turned 19 in 1995, when he was given two years probation for driving under the influence. He’s since been arrested and charged with crimes that include prowling, vandalism, carrying a concealed Glock pistol and resisting arrest, according to court records. Bassler liked and collected guns.
INITIALLY, James Bassler blamed drugs and alcohol use for the change in his son’s behavior. But as the behavior became increasingly strange, he became convinced his son suffered from mental illness. Over time, Aaron’s behavior became more bizarre. Aaron Bassler was unable to hold a steady job for any length of time, his father said. He built a wall around the home in which he was last living, carved into its walls and drew strange, child-like pictures, including of aliens. He grew star thistle in pots. Aliens were a recurring theme. In early 2009, Aaron was arrested for throwing packages containing drawings of aliens, along with fake bombs, over the fence of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
HE was placed on federal probation for about a year, during which time he seemed to improve mentally, his father said. During that time, Bassler was required to attend regular counseling. Privacy laws kept James Bassler from learning whether his son had been diagnosed or treated for mental illness. The probationary period left Aaron Bassler’s family with hope that, with treatment, he could improve. Once the probation ended, Aaron Bassler regressed, his father said. Their hopes were dashed by Aaron’s unwillingness to get treatment and their inability to get forced help for him through the courts. By this time he had become increasingly paranoid, delusional, and prone to angry outbursts, relatives said.
WHEN Aaron was arrested in February, James Bassler and his daughter wrote letters warning the court, jail, sheriff’s and county mental health officials that “his family fears for his safety, their own safety and that of the community if this psychiatric disorder is not addressed.” They pleaded with officials to evaluate Aaron and get him into treatment. They never heard back, according to James Bassler.
REPORTEDLY having a history of schizophrenia, prior arrests and hospitalizations, Bassler was left untreated by the California mental health system. Had he been court ordered to stay in treatment, some wonder if perhaps this tragedy would not have happened.
LIKE 25 other California counties, Mendocino County has no psychiatric beds. It has failed to implement Laura’s Law, the California statute authorizing court-ordered treatment in the community. Laura’s Law is California’s version of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT). These laws allow judges to order—after full hearings and considering all the evidence—certain potentially violent seriously mentally ill individuals to stay in treatment as a condition for living in the community. The vast majority of individuals with mental illness will never become dangerous. Laura’s Law is for the others— the ones such as Aaron Bassler.
STUDIES and statistics show both Assisted Outpatient Treatment and Laura’s Law have been effective— significantly reducing violence towards others, suicide, homelessness, arrests, incarcerations, and hospitalizations. Until there’s another murder, the law will most likely continue to be ignored. Mental health services and budgets are being gutted – mental health staff cut, psychiatric first-responders eliminated, hospital admissions reduced, and visits to mentally ill inmates by psychiatrists slashed. State and Counties’ fiscal budgets are going broke just trying to keep their patchwork systems afloat.
TWO weeks ago, Mendocino County supervisors asked their staff to prepare a presentation on the mental health program known as ‘Assisted Outpatient Treatment’. This is a step in the right direction. To note, Humboldt County does not have an AOT program.
THE unintended consequences? Matthew Coleman, Jere Melo, and Aaron Bassler are dead.—Their survivors are left with the tragic consequences of picking up the pieces of Aaron Bassler’s violence and untreated mental illness.
“I am hoping there’s some kind of change made,” said James Bassler, who has been agonizing over the killings and believes such a program could help other families. “He really wanted to hide his delusions from people. But being around him, close enough to him, it was a constant thing.”
JAMES Bassler said that what he considers the county’s failure to take seriously his warnings and his son’s mental illness are at least partly to blame for the deaths. “If he had a little more attention and guidance and control, this would have never happened.”
(The Treatment Advocacy Center, Press-Democrat, Los Angeles Times, and DJ Jaffe of the Mental Illness Policy Organization contributed to this report)
The Press Democrat
Treatment Advocacy Center:
Top photo copied from the Press Democrat article here.
Bottom photo from the KMUD site.