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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.
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.
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.
Over the years, Eckel says, she’s heard blood-curdling screaming coming from the house and other disturbing scenes, especially in the backyard. She started calling the police when things seemed to be out-of-hand.
Records show that APD officers responded to the house 12 times in the past six months. That’s a lot, said Lt. Dave Parker, a police spokesperson. But it isn’t necessarily unusual considering the nature of the house, he said.
For Eckel and other neighbors, it was too much.
On the evening of June 30, she was in the kitchen at her house – which directly faces the backyard of Soteria House – when she heard what she thought were firecrackers. They seemed much too loud. Through the fence, she could see a man’s arm moving. At the same time she realized it was shooting instead of fireworks, her husband Frank Bonfield was riding his bicycle down the hill, right in front of the fence. She screamed to him to run inside. Then she saw Mozelle Nalan lying on the deck, blood pooling around her. Her legs were moving.
Eckel is ready to move out of the neighborhood. She’d been bracing for something, but she didn’t realize it could be this bad.
“I’m ready to go,” she said.
The screaming she’d heard before at Soteria House chills her now.
“Sometimes you don’t know if someone is having a breakdown or being murdered,” she said. “And with the shooting, someone was being murdered.”
COULD IT HAVE BEEN PREVENTED?
Little is known about Michael McEvoy, the alleged shooter. A slim 21-year-old with close-cropped hair, he had lived for a stint at Soteria House before moving into his own Spenard apartment.
Musante and Wolf say it’s important to remember that statistically, mentally ill people are no more likely to commit violent acts than the general public.
Soteria House always has staff on hand – sometimes at a one-to-one staff-to-resident ratio – and regularly reviews all safety procedures. Safety, they say, is priority. Soteria House screens for past history of violence or criminal activity, and don’t take people who have been committed by the court system.
Both declined to speak specifically about McEvoy, except to say that he’d never shown any propensity toward violence in the time he lived at Soteria House. He had no criminal record. The biggest predictor of violence is prior violence, Wolf said.
“There were no indications,” said Wolf. “When you look at the indications, there were none of them.”
They worry that the shooting will turn already-fragile public opinion firmly against them. The worst thing that could happen is for Soteria House to be shut down, they say. Anchorage needs more options for people with mental health problems, not less.
“People should not panic and do away with what supports there are in our community,” Wolf said.
Musante and Wolf say Soteria House today is a community deeply grieving. But life is going on: people are going to work or school, gardening, preparing meals as a group and learning how to live with mental illness.
They don’t plan to make any major changes to the way Soteria House is run.
Wolf can’t help but wonder what would have happened if McEvoy had never moved out of Soteria House.
Had he still been living there, his behavior would have been closely watched by staff members. Signs of paranoia or delusions – like his former landlord’s assertion that he’d scared neighbors by obsessing over guns and “marching around like a soldier” at another Spenard apartment complex – would have been assessed.
Things might have been different.
COMING OUT OF A DARK TIME
Mozelle Nalan seemed to be coming out of a rough patch when she was shot and killed. Nalan, a freckled girl with a gentle smile and a constantly evolving shaved, punk-style haircut, grew up at least partly in Skagway. Like many teenagers, she often took to her Facebook page to express her feelings about the world, both dark and joyful.
Posts from a few years ago talk about misery and doctors appointments and wanting to die. She also took quizzes, like which Princess Bride character she was or how many children she would have. She took one that purported to predict the date of the quiz taker’s death. Feb 12, 2020, was the date it spit back.
“cool, ive always wanted to die of a freak accident i just hope that there is a good reason for someone to want to kill me or that it was totally random and noones fault that would be so cool2020 that gives me what 11 years ok sounds good enough i never figured id make it to 30 anyways” she posted.
But she wrote in July of 2010 that she was working on a “recovery and wellness plan.” In recent months, her posts were upbeat – photos of a laughing girl holding a balloon and department store Christmas portraits with her boyfriend.
And though perhaps in her darker moments Nalan didn’t think she’d live to be 30, there were still many things she wanted to do: Her mother wrote that she hoped to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She wanted to work at a haunted house. And there was the trip the two of them had planned: from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, starting with a picture of sunrise on the beach at the Atlantic and ending at the Pacific.
After the shooting, with Nalan in a coma at the hospital, her mother recorded her thoughts on a blog.
Mozelle I want to see you in your wedding dress, and hold your babies. Not make decisions about life support and organ transplants. Please come back to us.
The frontal lobes, she wrote, of Mozelle’s brain and the right hemisphere had been destroyed in the shooting. Doctors struggled to keep her temperature down and removed portions of her skull to let out pressure.
Meanwhile, friends and family posted photographs of Mozelle as a child: with her beloved Burmese Mountain dog Shelly, riding horses, visiting the grandfather she called “Ponka” in Washington State. Mozelle, her grandfather Glen Clark later said, had called the week before the shooting with a story. She was, he said, a wonderful writer and storyteller.
On July 17, after doctors told them that her brain was so severely damaged that she’d never wake up, the family disconnected her from life support. Friends came to say goodbye and painted her nails and toenails bright colors she loved. She died at 11:35 pm, listening to a CD of nature songs, with her mother next to her.
She was 19.
At Soteria House, the part of the deck where Mozelle Nalan was shot has been replaced. A candle has been placed there. Prosecutors say they’re likely to charge Michael McEvoy with first degree murder soon.
But for now, he’s likely going to stay in the place the founders of Soteria most wanted to spare people from: The psych unit at the Anchorage jail.
(Article published here.)