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Appalachian Trail stabbing highlights challenge of intervening on behalf of the mentally ill

James Jordan (left) appears outside of federal court in Abingdon, Va.
James Jordan (left) appears outside of federal court in Abingdon, Va.(WCYB-TV)

By Vernal Coleman and Laura Crimaldi | Globe Staff

Odie Norman, a so-called trail angel, heard disturbing reports about a man threatening hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and decided to seek him out.

Norman tracked James Jordan down earlier this month and bought him a hamburger at Bob’s Dairyland in Roan Mountain, Tenn.

Almost immediately, he saw that Jordan, 30, of Yarmouth, was deeply troubled and needed help. But what to do?

“Do you call 911 and say: ‘Don’t call the cops, send a psychiatrist?’ ” Norman said in an interview.

Norman’s dilemma encapsulates the challenge of getting troubled people help, while weighing their rights against the possibility they could harm themselves or others.

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“You’re having to find that balance, and predicting violence isn’t an exact science,” said Martin Cohen, board member of the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission.

One in five adults in America experiences a mental illness in any given year, and half of chronic cases start by 14 years of age, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Advocates say those with mental illness are more likely to be victimized by violence than commit it. Nonetheless, from 2005 through 2015, 10 percent of all homicides in Massachusetts in which a suspect is known were allegedly committed by people with a history of mental illness or clear symptoms, according to a 2016 Spotlight Team investigation.

In Massachusetts, a person can be detained at a hospital or treatment facility for up to 72 hours if an examining physician believes they could hurt themselves or someone else if left free.

Once the person is admitted, medical authorities can petition for a court order to commit the person to a mental health treatment facility. Under state law, a person facing an involuntary commitment for the first time can be forcibly hospitalized for up to six months, and subsequent commitments can last for at least one year.

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There were 3,084 petitions for involuntary commitment filed in 2017, according to the most recent state data available. That’s a 22 percent increase over 2012, when 2,518 petitions for involuntary commitment were sought.

Commitments are a drastic step, said Phil Kassel, executive director of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee. He and other advocates say Massachusetts should expand the availability of treatment options as another potential solution.

Cohen agreed preventative care is paramount. “We have got to make mental health care more accessible to people before they need crisis services.”

Jordan is currently in jail in Virginia, charged with killing hiker Ronald Sanchez Jr. on the Appalachian Trail.

Friends in New England had previously steered Jordan, 30, to mental health facilities, but he allegedly signed himself out and refused medication. Meanwhile, he accrued a record of minor crimes, none of which kept him locked up for long.

Fifty years ago, Jordan might have landed in a public psychiatric hospital. Today, in Massachusetts, most of those facilities are shuttered, and a patchwork of community services and private care providers operate with strained budgets.

There are 2,892 inpatient beds available for both voluntary and involuntary hospital admissions, as well as involuntary commitments. Still, patients can wait days in Massachusetts hospital emergency rooms before receiving needed psychiatric treatment, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Danna Mauch, Massachusetts Association for Mental Health CEO, said one of the keys to dealing with a person with mental illness is intervening “before the situation reaches emergency proportions.” She would like to see a broader menu of treatment options that are more accessible to people across the state.

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By April, hikers reported Jordan appeared to be troubled. He allegedly brandished a knife and hissed at passersby.

Norman, founder of The Hiker Yearbook, chose to steer Jordan off the trail earlier this month and away from others.

Norman told the Globe he bought Jordan a one-way ticket to see his family. Norman even confirmed that Jordan got on the bus. But not long after, Jordan was back on the trail.

The system, Norman said, isn’t equipped to keep people like Jordan safe from themselves and others.

“There should be a social worker or psychiatrist we can call, not someone who only has the power to put people in handcuffs and have them spend the night in jail.”


Vernal Coleman can be reached at vernal.coleman@globe.com. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com