An unknown man

My friend Frans is dead. Stabbed in a park by a young man with psychosis. Newspapers are calling him ‘An unknown 68-year-old man walking his dog’. It happened somewhere in a moorland in the South of the Netherlands.  To me, he is not an unknown man at all. We worked together as friends for many years. All his life, he worked hard to build the most beautiful places in my hometown of Rotterdam. A not-so-traditional builder with ideas that made the impossible possible. A stubborn Dutchman with a big heart. With his wife and dog, he led a wonderful, retired life that abruptly ended on an afternoon in May 2019.

What is there to say about it? At first, I called the then still unknown perpetrator an awful piece of trash. Was it a terrorist, lost and roaming around the moor? A disgruntled former lover of the woman who was also killed nearby? Just a madman or an ordinary thief that tried to rob them? Later on, a suspect was identified. A highly-gifted person in his twenties, who suffers from psychosis. He is also suspected of a woman’s murder earlier that week. What are the chances of something like this happening to you? You are more likely to win the state lottery jackpot.

Of course, the first thing that pops to mind is our failing system of care for people with mental health issues. On the one hand, mental healthcare has seen enormous cutbacks over the past year. On the other hand, the increasing prosperity has also increased the number of people in need of help, not just in the Netherlands but probably in the entire global community. Young people with a burn-out. Lonely people, isolated people. Disordered people – a term we Dutch invented for that kind of person – walking down the street, shouting and sometimes resorting to violence.

Of course, the Netherlands is still a global leader when it comes to healthcare. We are in the top ten worldwide. But what do we measure to get to that conclusion, which circumstances are included in that result, and, more important, which are not?

The number of suicides among young people has doubled. In the last ten years, the number of reports about confused persons has more than doubled to 90,000 cases per year. Among the most important causes are the cutbacks in healthcare. The number of beds in psychiatric care facilities has fallen sharply in Holland. It is not a bad idea to make help more ambulatory and to help people closer to home, but if the funds to do so are also reduced, the problems will only get bigger and harder to manage. The situation is particularly problematic amongst young people who are confronted with major existential questions or get lost through drugs or alcohol abuse. Young people with severe problems, who have to wait up to eight months to get some help. And the police? With so many reports of mentally confused people each year, and not enough personnel trained to establish a good risk profile, we are slowly moving in the wrong direction.

Our society has become complex. There is little room for people who have trouble participating. Whether it is about digitization and the do-it-yourself economy or the lack of social cohesion and a failing healthcare system that has to fix that. Are we going to say ‘hello’ to our neighbour or will the police have to break down his door after we haven’t seen him for two months and a strange smell permeates the hallway?

My friend Frans has fallen victim to terrible, stupid, bad luck. A disturbed boy who was left by the wayside. Who could just walk away from a closed mental healthcare department because he turned on the fire alarm himself (!) But Frans is also the victim of a society that is so far removed from normal human values, that has been so derailed, that perhaps it is time we start debating how we can take better care of these people.


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