The Demon in the Shadows: Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and an Adjunct’s Lonely Death

Two very different stories in my newsfeed this morning. Both are tragic. Each gets attention for the questions it raises about law and justice. But each has another, less obvious thread that compounds the tragedy, complicates the law, raises more troubling questions of justice. Each challenges us to respond to those questions, as Catholics, as Americans.

We’ve all been watching the unfolding tragedy of Monday’s mass shooting at the Naval Shipyard in Washington, DC. The victims are being named and mourned. The nation is concerned about the security of our military installations. Americans—including the president—on all sides of the continuing, stalled conversation about guns are using this as one more test case for their arguments.

The other story was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and it’s making the rounds among those connected to higher education—in this case, Catholic higher education, but the questions it raises apply across the board. In “Death of an Adjunct,” labor attorney Daniel Kovalik profiles 83-year-old Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died September 1. Madame Vojtko taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, eking out the notoriously low wages of an adjunct (a contract instructor without tenure or benefits, paid by the class hour) until she died in near-homeless penury. Madame Vojtko, who was also undergoing cancer treatment at the time of her death, had sought out the assistance of Mr Kovalik—who is leading efforts to unionize adjuncts at Duquesne—to see if she could obtain any assistance from the university before Adult Protective Services turned her over to Orphan’s Court, the Pennsylvania body that oversees the affairs of those deemed incompetent.

Mr Kovalik makes an impassioned case for better treatment of adjuncts—a case that very much needs to be made, and heard, in a time when colleges and universities charge sky-high tuition and rely overwhelmingly on underpaid adjuncts in the classroom. In pinning that case to Madame Vojtko’s story, however, I believe he’s missing an even larger issue that deserves our attention.

In the lives of both Madame Vojtko and Aaron Alexis, the alleged Naval Shipyard shooter, the demon in the shadows is mental illness. Not as an excuse for murder, not as a distraction from the injustice of an adjunct’s wages, but as the elephant that still goes so tragically unseen, unspoken, untreated in every room of American life.

We are hearing, this morning, that Aaron Alexis has exhibited florid signs of mental illness for at least a decade. He apparently sought help in the disorganized, crazed, largely ineffective ways it occurs to the mentally ill to seek help: in religious practice (Alexis was associated with a Buddhist temple in the Ft Worth area), in vicarious family (Alexis was a regular customer and occasional worker at a Thai restaurant, where the owner considered him a brother and admired his willingness to learn the Thai language and culture), and in desperation (he called 911 and reported himself to Providence, RI police as hearing voices and being under observation by faceless enemies). For whatever reasons, no intervention ever occurred, and Alexis was able to purchase a rifle on Saturday and use his unchallenged civilian contractor ID to penetrate the Naval Shipyard’s security with that rifle, to end 12 lives before his own was ended.

There is no official acknowledgment of mental illness in Margaret Mary Vojtko’s story—but there are red flags aplenty.

On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.

For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness.

Madame Vojtko, at 83, might certainly have been suffering extreme emotional stress, or side effects of the chemotherapy, or even the onset of dementia. But other details of her story speak of something a little closer to home for me.

With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat ‘n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Margaret Mary Vojtko’s living situation was, I suspect, worsened and to some extent even caused by the mental illness of hoarding disorder. Hoarders can be bright, articulate, and devoted to their work, but with disturbed thinking and very few practical life skills. They can “never miss a class” while their homes fall into ruin around them, bills go unpaid, planning for retirement and health care goes undone. (At 83, as others have asked, why was she not receiving Medicare or Social Security? Did her mental state drive her to neglect even these small safety nets?) They can pride themselves on doing what they love for very little money. They can show up in clean clothes and with every hair in place, even though they have not had running water or slept lying down in years. And they are ferocious about resisting intervention.

I know this because it could have been me, a year ago, dying on the front lawn of an uninhabitable house.

Maybe I’m projecting, but it raises again our need to face down the demon. Aaron Alexis’s Texas landlady said, “I never would have suspected. It’s like he’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” The Adult Protective Services worker Mr Kovalik contacted about Madame Vojtko asked incredulously, “She’s a professor?”

Professors can have a mental illness. Mild-mannered Buddhist government contract workers can have a mental illness. Anyone can have a mental illness. And that mental illness can kill—not only the person with the disease, but others close by or at random. People who are mentally ill are not killers by nature, of course. But mental illness untreated, mental health care unavailable and unfunded, kills the body and the spirit more pervasively than any unregistered gun.

The lesson from this morning’s newsfeed: Exorcise this demon. Advocate for, work for, pray for, pay for real, compassionate, effective mental health care, especially for the indigent. Make this a Church—a national—issue of justice. And when you have the graced opportunity, intervene, intervene, intervene. The life you save may be your own.

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