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After Soteria House Shooting Victim Dies, Questions Remain

July 19, 2011|Michelle Theriault Boots
Photo courtesy of Facebook

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Soteria House was supposed to be a safe place.

The sprawling green multiplex on Doris Street was designed to be a respite from psychiatric wards and institutions; a chance for young people diagnosed with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia to live in a place that was like a home, not a hospital, making choices for themselves.

 “The message always is ‘we are here to keep you safe,’” wrote Susan Musante, the site manager, in a fact sheet about Soteria House’s philosophy.

But for Mozelle Nalan, it wasn’t.

The 19-year-old, originally from Skagway, had lived at the house for 11 months, only recently graduating to her own apartment. On the evening of June 30, Nalan had returned to the house to see friends and fill out an application to become a volunteer. Police say she was standing in the backyard when another former resident named Michael McEvoy shot her at least four times in the head.

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In the back of a cop car after police arrested him, McEvoy made bizarre statements:

 “Did I do something good for the community?” he asked.

“My mission here is over,” he said.

Nalan spent two weeks in the critical care unit of an Anchorage hospital before she died on Sunday night.

Now, in the wake of the shooting, the founders of Alaska’s Soteria House are defending their controversial approach to treating mental illness – while some are asking whether a tragedy was inevitable.

A NEW APPROACH TO MENTAL ILLNESS

Jim Gottstein, a local lawyer and mental health advocate who was involved with establishing the house, told reporters back in 2009 that the world would be watching Soteria House- Alaska.

“Everyone is going to be looking at Soteria – Alaska,” he said.

Founders wanted the home to be a model for others around the world -- part of a quiet revolution in the way mental illness is treated.

The Soteria model was developed by Loren Mosher, a California-born, Harvard-bred psychiatrist. After seeing that schizophrenic people did not get better from treatment at large mental institutions, but actually got worse, he began developing an alternative: an “innovative, non-drug, non-hospital, home-like residential treatment facility for acutely psychotic people,” according to his official biography.

The idea was a small, home-like environment where people – especially new to their mental illness, who presumably had not been so damaged by overmedication and institutionalization – would live, together with a close staff-to-resident ratio. Importantly, they would not be forcibly drugged with powerful anti-psychotic medication. If they wanted to take the medication, they could. Instead, there would be an emphasis on community living, therapy, and “being with” people in the midst of psychotic episodes or distress. 

The message that schizophrenia is something that can be recovered from, rather than a lifelong debilitating condition, is at the core of the approach, says Musante.

The Soteria approach works where America’s standard mental health system fails, said Dr. Aron Wolf, a longtime Anchorage psychiatrist who worked for years to establish the house. And, he said, research proves it.

A 10 year study of another Soteria House showed high rates of recovery with less reliance on medications, which can cause chronic health problems like weight gain and diabetes.  And a similar approach in Finland called the “Open Dialogue” model resulted in an 80 percent success rate – with only 19 percent of people taking medication.

According to Musante, the Alaska Soteria House also chalked up some impressive successes in the lives of its residents during its first two years: three people became employed, two worked for their GEDs, five graduated from homelessness or assisted living to independent living. And the total population saw an 88 percent decrease in hospitalizations.

NEIGHBORHOOD CONCERNS

But neighbors say that all was not well at Soteria House long before the shooting.

When public meetings were held in Spenard before the house opened in 2009, nearly 100 people turned out, says neighbor Teresa Eckel, who has lived directly across the street since 1987.

Many in the neighborhood were disturbed by the idea that the house would specifically be for acutely mentally ill people who would not be required to take medication, said Eckel.

“There was outrage,” she said. “I was a little concerned, but some of the people were outraged.”

At the meeting, the founders answered questions and the process went forward. Soteria House opened in the fall of 2009 with a permit for five residents.

“I think they had a goal to open the place and were hell-bent on doing it,” Eckel said.

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