It’s human nature: Faced with a horrible event like the death of two innocent young men in a Biddeford fire in September, we all want to know, “Why?”

As if there really could be a reason “why” a deeply disturbed teenager would set fire to a building, as Dylan Collins is accused of doing, killing people he didn’t even know.

The 18-year-old Biddeford man is being held in the York County Jail, facing charges of arson and murder. He has a history of mental illness, which reached crisis levels over the past year. For many, that will be the only answer they need: His illness caused the fire.

Now we begin the search for “red flags,” telltale signs that this boy’s inner crisis was about to become a crisis for the community – and a tragedy for the families of two young men – that could have been avoided.

It’s human nature. We want to know why it happened because we don’t want it to happen to us.

The problem is, there usually is no “red flag” in a case like this – or more accurately, there are so many “red flags” exhibited by so many troubled kids that identifying them becomes meaningless from a public safety perspective. In fact, wanting the system to weed out the dangerous ones from the rest of society could make things worse, because it adds to the fear of people with mental illness that makes them reluctant to get treatment.


We fear the wrong thing so often. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five teenagers will experience a severe mental disorder in a typical year. But only about 4 percent of violence in the nation can be attributed to the perpetrator’s mental illness. That means we are far less likely to be hurt by a person with a mental disorder than we are to find a friend or a family member in agony because of a mental illness and not be able to get them the help they need.

That’s what happened to Donna Betts, a Scarborough mother whose son Josh developed severe depression at age 23. Within six months he had killed himself.

Betts has founded Family Hope Maine, an organization that works with concerned parents and others trying to get treatment for people they love.

“My son died from (a mental disorder),” Betts said. “We live in the Stone Age when it comes to talking about mental health.”

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, and the 10th leading cause of death among all ages. In Maine, about 160 people kill themselves every year. This is in a state that averages about 20 murders.

Suicide, not murder, is the violent act that is clearly linked to mental illness. More than 90 percent of those who kill themselves have at least one mental disorder, according to a 2012 study by the Institute of Suicidology.


Betts says many of the frustrations that Collins’ mother, Donna Pitcher, talked about in a Maine Sunday Telegram interview are regular experiences for the families she works with.

Betts said that like Pitcher, many family members find the system hard to understand, the right services hard to find. As Pitcher reported, there is a stigma that surrounds people with mental illness that at times turns into outright discrimination. People don’t want to be around people with mental illness. Friends stop coming around to talk. In Collins’ case, his mother said it took the form of harassment at school.

And Betts said the problems get worse after a child’s 18th birthday, when parents don’t have a right to communicate with their child’s doctors, not even to know what kind of medication their child should be taking or whether the child is following through with treatment.

And even calling the police (as Pitcher did) when a child is in danger of hurting himself or someone else isn’t much help unless the threat is imminent, Betts said. “And when they say ‘imminent’ they mean ‘right away,’ ” she said. “It can’t be just, ‘He’s thinking about doing it sometime.’ ”

So it’s right to look for ways that the system may have failed Dylan Collins, but we shouldn’t forget that every day it also is failing many other young people who will probably never be a threat to public safety, but who will suffer needlessly.

We don’t need a mental health system to find “red flags” to identify the people who might hurt us. We need one that finds all the people around us who are hurting, and give them the treatment they need.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.