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Episcopalians call for greater mental health awareness after death of fellow parishioner Deborah Danner

09 February 2018


The Suffragan Bishop of New York, the Rt Revd Allen Shin (fifth from right) joins members of the congregation from Deborah Danner’s church as they wait outside the courtroom where the trial of Sgt Hugh Barry is taking place

The Suffragan Bishop of New York, the Rt Revd Allen Shin (fifth from right) joins members of the congregation from Deborah Danner’s church as th...

EPISCOPALIANS in the United States are calling for greater mental-health awareness, support, and training in the dioceses, after a churchgoer and diagnosed schizophrenic woman, Deborah Danner, was shot dead by a police sergeant in New York on 18 October 2016.

Sgt Hugh Barry, who fired the shot, and five other officers of the New York Police Department, were called to the apartment of Ms Danner, 66, in the Bronx district, after reports that she had become distressed. It was not the first time that her neighbours had called the police to persuade her to go to hospital.

Sgt Barry, 32, is currently on trial in the State Supreme Court in the Bronx, on charges of murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide. His lawyers are arguing that he fired in self-defence after Ms Danner brandished scissors, and then a baseball bat, at his head, The New York Times reported.

Brittney Mullings, a paramedic who attended to Ms Danner that evening, however, told the court that Ms Danner had put down the scissors before the officers arrived, and, although still distressed, was no longer shouting. On hearing the officers arrive, Ms Danner retreated, screaming, into her bedroom, where she was rushed by officers, and two shots were fired, Ms Mullings said.

About 30 to 60 parishioners from four Episcopal churches in the city have attended the courtroom each day since the start of the planned three-week trial, last week, including the Suffragan Bishop of New York, the Rt Revd Allen Shin.

A priest at Trinity Wall Street, where Ms Danner worshipped, the Revd Winnie Varghese, organised the attendance to show that Ms Danner was a victim, not a threat, she said on Tuesday, and to advocate crisis-intervention training for the emergency services.

“Our goal was to have a visible presence of friends of Deborah. In these kinds of trials, the victim can end up being put on trial, and we suspected that would happen with Deborah. We wanted the judge to see us; he will make the final decision, and hopefully remember that she was, for us, a beloved parishioner and friend.”

She also wanted to lessen the stigma of mental illness in the United States. “It is too easy in our society to dismiss Deborah as a caricature of a violent person in a poor community. That is not the truth of who she was. She was sick, and her neighbours called emergency services so that she could get help, as she has had in the past.

In the US, mental-health services, such as health care, were available only for those who could afford insurance, she said. “In a city like New York, all of our religious sites become a refuge for people living with mental illness. We all know people who come to us either asking for a little bit of refuge, and sometimes for real help. I think most of us probably feel like me: utterly inadequate in responding with the real connecting, sustaining help [that] someone living with these kinds of illnesses requires.”

The Bishop of New York, the Rt Revd Andrew Dietsche, who was due to attend the trial today, wrote a letter to the Mayor last month, calling for “comprehensive crisis-intervention training” for all police officers in the city to be implemented.

“[Ms Danner] suffered from mental illness for most of her life. While she is mourned by all our city, her death is particularly grievous to us in the Episcopal community,” he wrote. “We share your conviction that Deborah’s death was a tragedy that should have been prevented. . . Every faith community in New York City has someone like Deborah whose struggles are beyond the caring capacity of our congregations.”

Ms Varghese continued: “Bishop Dietsche remembers Deborah as one of the first people he confirmed as a new bishop. When she was not sick, she was a sharp theological thinker. Our parishioners that attend the trial every day, knew her through the church knitting club, and other weekly activities seniors share at Trinity. She was truly one of us.”

The Rector of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, Manhattan, the Revd Matthew Hyed, had known Ms Danner for ten years. “It’s hard, because the trial is about tragedy: both the tragedy of her killing, and the tragedy of mental illness being unaddressed,” he told the Episcopal News Service. “And it’s hopeful, because the Church is organising both to recognise the dignity of her life and to respond and give meaning to her struggle, and to support others who are struggling with mental illness.”

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