AUGUSTA — Every mental health and law enforcement professional would welcome the gift of knowing who is going to commit a crime and when. The challenge is that human behavior is unpredictable. Even more complicated is knowing whether mental illness, trauma or criminal intent motivates one’s behavior.

Looking for somewhere to place blame for the recent fatal fire in Biddeford pushes us all to make change happen. The events involving the young man accused of setting the Sept. 18 blaze – 18-year-old Dylan Collins, whose mother had tried to have him involuntarily committed this summer – are heartbreaking and serve to remind us all that we need to finally realize the broken promise of a comprehensive community-based system that offers early identification and intervention supports.

Simply put, our mental health system and our attitudes toward mental illness need to change. On average, someone with a mental health issue waits 10 years before they seek help. Stigma and lack of resources prevent people from accessing help when it is first needed.

The heart of our challenge is that Maine’s mental health system lacks resources to support community-based services. Our rural state lacks the capacity, expertise and funding to provide the right help at the right time, targeted specifically to the needs of a particular individual. Our shared focus at this time should be on how to build a dynamic mental health system that includes a holistic continuum of community-based services, not on how to force people into treatment or to punish law enforcement officers for events beyond their control.

Portland Press Herald coverage, including the Nov. 15 article “Biddeford arson case raises questions about Maine’s commitment process,” has made it clear that yes, there is a formal procedure for involuntarily committing someone, which requires a clear determination that the person presents an imminent risk to harm themselves or others. This can be a difficult standard to meet. Yet the process of removing someone’s freedom in our country should require meeting a high and complicated bar. One in four individuals will be directly affected by mental illness. That is a lot of us, so imagine being locked up for your thoughts and not your actions.

It’s misguided to believe that preventing violent crime requires those with a mental illness to be uniformly treated against their will. According to a study whose results were released earlier this year, if the medical community cured major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, violent crime would decrease by only 4 percent. This illustrates that mental illness is predominantly not the reason for criminal behavior; thus, it’s unfair and only serves to stigmatize these illnesses further when we categorize all individuals who commit crime as being mentally ill.

Far more violent crime can be directly attributed to the use of alcohol than to mental illness, yet we do not return as a society to Prohibition. Our stigma as a society drives us to blame mental illness for criminality.

In a very limited number of cases, mental illness is the root cause of someone’s aggression and violence. Sadly, though, society tends to criminalize and dismiss these individuals who are clearly very ill.

The state of Maine has no facility to provide hospital-level treatment for individuals who are seriously and persistently ill and whose illness can be directly connected to their violent and aggressive behavior. Some suggest that treating these individuals in prison is a reasonable solution to our lack of appropriate resources. Just as we must build early identification resources for young children to promote mental wellness, we must also never give up hope for recovery for those with serious and persistent mental illness.

Finding a path to recovery is a process and a long journey that has many bumps along the way. The concept that large numbers of people with mental health challenges will truly find a path to recovery when they are forcibly treated is simply wrong. With supports, education and treatment options, recovery is absolutely possible; but it requires an individual’s full participation and does not happen against his or her will.

— Special to the Press Herald