Kaheem Thomas would have been 31 years old on June 12. But there won’t be birthday celebrations this year. Instead, his loved ones grapple with the fact that he took his own life earlier this month, and some question the efficiency of mental health services in the territory.
On June 2, Thomas got into a physical altercation with Neighborhood Pharmacy’s security guard, according to a Virgin Islands Police Department news release. At some point, Thomas took the guard’s gun and shot himself.
One of Thomas’s sisters, who asked for anonymity, said he’d gone there in the past to pick up the medication that helped him cope with his schizophrenia. But that was a year or two prior to the incident.
She said she thinks that, in this case, he may have just gone to the pharmacy for a drink. But the security guard denied him entry because, without a face mask, he wasn’t in compliance with the government mandates in response to COVID-19. Thomas got upset, left, and then returned to instigate the physical altercation that ended with him turning the gun on himself, she said.
Thomas later died from the gunshot injury after he was taken to the Juan F. Luis Hospital.
Parjet Thomas, his father, said his emotions were mixed after an officer brought him to the scene. There were tears in his eyes as he spoke.
“I felt relief in one way, just to know he didn’t turn the gun on anyone else. But I felt a burden knowing then he was dead, so that was hard to deal with – to look at him, seeing him there dead,” he said.
His son was the eighth family member he’d lost over the past six months, he said.
Life Before Mental Illness
Thomas is lovingly remembered, especially for who he was in the moments when he didn’t battle schizophrenia.
His former high school girlfriend, Jessica Samuel, called Thomas’s boldness “the most beautiful thing about him.” During a phone interview, she recalled the first time they met at the Seventh-day Adventist School while she was in ninth grade and he was in tenth.
“It was a Monday, and we were coming out of chapel,” she said. “He had come beside me and started walking beside me and literally just slipped his hands in my hands and started holding my hands down the staircase. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘This dude is bold.’ It was the smoothest move I’d seen anyone pull, you know … I was blushing. I was absolutely blushing.”
Eachan Simon, Thomas’s childhood best friend, said he’s known Thomas since he’s known himself. He remembers him as perseverant and loyal.
“He was very protective of his friends and family. Nobody could have messed with any of us around him, you know,” Simon said.
His father described him as selfless. He called him by his nickname, “Shandell”, as he reminisced on all the times his son had acted out of service.
“Shandell felt as though he had to help others,” he said. “Whether it’s a senior or somebody else up in front of us, and they didn’t have enough money, he would pay for their groceries.”
At 63 years old, Parjet suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. He said his son was his primary caregiver for years, even as he battled his own mental illness.
“He took me to the doctor. He picked me up. I need to go to the grocery store; we go to the grocery store. So, that’s the Shandell that all of us know,” he said. “He was helpful. He did a lot of volunteer work.”
Parjet also recounted times when Kaheem would feed the homeless and give them money. Ironically, there would come a time when Kaheem himself would appear homeless as he roamed the streets on St. Croix.
A Decade of Battling Schizophrenia
According to Parjet, his son struggled with schizophrenia for about 10 years. They first recognized something was wrong when Kaheem had an aggressive breakdown while studying at the University of the Virgin Islands in 2010. He would soon be expelled from the university.
Parjet said the family sought help and got him on medication, and everything seemed to be under control for about five years. During that time, he took courses at the St. Croix Educational Complex’s Career and Technical Education Center and became an elder at the Faith Seventh-day Adventist Church.
But in 2015, things started to change. According to Parjet, this was around the same time a behavioral health counselor told his son that his mental illness wasn’t caused by smoking marijuana. He said it was also around the time Kaheem expressed the desire to be off of medication, and both his counselor and doctor came up with a plan to wean him off.
From Parjet’s perspective, leading his son to believe that marijuana was okay and decreasing his medication were both bad ideas. He believes that his son began smoking during this time, and it made matters worse.
“My son’s aim was to get off the medication because of what the counselor said to him,” he said. “After he got off his medication, he just lost his way.”
At one point, the prescribed dosage went back up, but Kaheem didn’t stop smoking, according to Parjet.
“What went wrong, I assume, he used marijuana with the medication, and then made his psychosis worse because he had the full dosage of the medication. They even increased it,” he said.
Asked how he knew his son was using marijuana, he said he’d “snooped” around and found it within his possession. He said the counselor concluded that marijuana wasn’t the cause of Kaheem’s mental illness because he’d experienced his first psychotic episode at a time when he’d stopped smoking. But Parjet said he believed his son had started smoking about 6 or 7 months prior to his first episode in 2010.
Simon doesn’t believe that marijuana caused his friend’s illness. He remembered the time when both he and Thomas had decided to become Christians and gave up smoking.
“We all had changed our lives around 2011, I think. We stop smoke; we stop drink; we become Christians,” he said. “He wasn’t smoking weed, to my knowledge, when he went off … because he was on the full path … It just happened.”
Whatever the cause, there was a marked difference in Thomas when the schizophrenic episodes returned. Friends and family noted his aggression, and he attracted the attention of local media with several acts of violence.
In 2019, he attacked a former teacher at the Head Start facility in Kingshill while looking for the Bethlehem House Shelter for the Homeless. His father believes that he became violent because he wasn’t allowed inside the preschool, which he thought was the shelter. Thomas was incarcerated for a short period of time only to walk the streets again after his release.
Parjet recalled times when Kaheem would leave home abruptly without saying where he was going. Friends would call to say they spotted him at several locations on island.
Who Failed Thomas?
Watching Kaheem develop a reputation for aggression and for wandering the streets left many wondering what his church, family, or the government were doing to help.
After initial reports of his death, many used social media for pejorative commentary. Some said his church had failed him. Others said his community had failed him.
Samuel, who had been living on the mainland during the time Thomas struggled with mental illness, recalled getting reports from others while she was away.
“A lot of people would call me and ask me like, ‘Have you seen Kaheem? Have you heard about Kaheem? What’s going on with Kaheem?’” she said over the phone. “And I always found it so interesting that people turned to me to call me to ask about him – not because I didn’t care, but because it almost seemed like so many people who belonged to the same community he belonged to had been outsourcing the kind of help that he needed.”
She had a lot of questions, some of which centered on the role of his church in his life.
“I wonder who prayed for Kaheem? Who prayed with Kaheem? I don’t know the answer to that,” she said.
According to Parjet Thomas, the church did a lot. He said there were church members who paid for his medication, paid for his rent at times, and cooked his meals all week long.
“It was a network of people who would assist us,” he said. “He wasn’t homeless. He had a home.”
There were even plans to get Kaheem assistance off island. The church raised money to pay his way, but Kaheem refused to go, according to his father.
“I feel that I did all I can to assist him. I don’t feel as though I failed him, or any one of us failed him because we had other plans to assist him, but when those things came up, he refused,” Parjet said.
According to Behavioral Health Outreach Worker Kwane Barthlett, mentally ill people have rights. He said that not even Behavioral Health personnel can force them into treatment.
“Like all patients, they have a right to refuse care,” he said. “If they say, ‘Leave me alone right now. Do not touch me.’ That is clear and concise language … So if they can verbalize, then you have to back off.”
Parjet Thomas said that during the times Kaheem left home and roamed the streets between 2016 and 2017, he tried several times to get a document that would force his son to get emergency treatment.
It’s called an “Application for Emergency Involuntary Psychiatric Care” or a “722,” a reference to the Virgin Islands Code that stipulates the guidelines for this type of care.
According to Evadne Sang, Juan F. Luis Hospital psychiatrist, the document is intended for those who are blatantly psychotic, delusional, or trying to harm either themselves or others.
Both Barthlett and Sang explained the steps to getting a mentally ill person, who is also non-compliant, into emergency care. The steps include picking up the 722 document from the JFL Hospital or Schneider Regional Medical Center, filling it out, and then carrying it to the police to authorize them to pick up the person and bring them into the hospital.
But Parjet said every time he tried to get the 722 application from the Juan F. Luis Hospital, he was told he couldn’t get it without having his son there with him. He said he tried about six or seven times to get the application without success.
“They insist they not giving it to us. The patient has to be here, and we have to fill it out here. They not handing it out,” he said. “We constantly said, ‘We cannot get him to come here, and we already had assistance from the police, and the police send us here to get the 722. They say, ‘Well, go back to the police and let the police bring him here.’ ”
Sang said that shouldn’t have happened.
“Different people tell folks different things. But no, that’s not how it works,” she said.
However, Sang also acknowledged that the process for getting a mentally-ill patient into long-term care against their will is a tedious one. The 722 document holds a patient in care for up to five business days. Anything longer requires a 723 application, which must be approved by a judge.
“We have to run around, get the judges, whatever judge will want to hear the case, and sometimes you wait around on them for hours and hours till they’re through with their other major cases,” she said. “So, it’s a tedious process, and I’m the only psychiatrist here.”
Parjet said his family did attempt to get the courts to intervene so his son could get care. But their public defenders kept changing without notice.
“I think the establishment failed him,” Parjet said.
And by “the establishment,” he meant the Division of Behavioral Health, the Juan F. Luis Hospital, and the judicial system.
Response from JFL Hospital and Behavioral Health
Both Sang and Barthlett spoke on ways mental health services can be improved in the territory.
Barthlett said they need help from the community at large.
“First and foremost, we need the community to actually do more than just speak on these things,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I hold as a pet peeve. A lot of people speak on the issues, but they would still leave their office and their desktop and pass this person and not offer them a bottle of water.”
He said it’s easy to be skeptical of the care that the mentally ill receive because a lot of the work being done under the Division of Behavioral Health goes unnoticed. And part of the reason their work goes unnoticed, he said, is to maintain clients’ confidentiality.
“In comparison to what people see, there’s a lot that’s not seen. So they may see the person walking in the middle of the street at 12 p.m., but what they don’t see is me every single day making contact with that person and begging them to come in for help because they have rights,” he said.
There’s also a need for more mental health professionals in the territory, according to both Sang and Barthlett. The idea would be to treat mental illness as a public health crisis that requires “an influx of professionals to come in and bolster our response,” Barthlett said.
Sang said she is the only full-time psychiatrist on St. Croix.
“I cannot serve the entire population by myself. I need help,” she said. “We have some psychiatrists who come on the island, maybe once every two or three months for a day or two. How’s that going to help these folks?”
She also said that in order to reel more mental health professionals to the territory, the government would have to put up more dollars.
“I find that I do get frustrated, trust me, because your legislators do not put their money where their mouth is. They want mental health taken care of. They want their ‘this’. They want their ‘that’. But where’s the money to do it?” she said.
As an older physician near the end of her career, Sang said the pay she receives is sufficient, but it wouldn’t be for others.
“You need to pay what the psychiatrists are getting paid on the mainland or you’re not going to get them to come down here,” she said. “I’m just on the other side of my career. I’m not starting; I’m not in the middle.”
Sang also spoke on the dangers of marijuana. Originally from Jamaica, Sang said the marijuana culture spread from there, but many are misguided on its effects.
“I feel that the folks in the West Indies and on this island, particularly, feel that marijuana is not a drug because you don’t put it through a lot of chemical processes. It is a drug, just like cocaine is a drug….It changes the chemical reaction in the brain,” she said. “We’re losing a lot of good, young minds to the use of drugs and not getting proper mental care.”
Sang, Barthlett, and Thomas’s sister all said that there was a need for more facilities that could offer structure for the mentally ill in the territory.
According to Thomas’s sister, he told the staff at the Neighborhood Pharmacy that he wanted to go back to jail shortly before the altercation that led to his death. She believes he was looking for a structured environment, somewhere he could find peace.
During his mourning, Parjet still clings to his faith and encourages his other four children to dwell on positive thoughts. He said he doesn’t blame God, and he knows that everything happens for a reason.
Thomas’s funeral is set for Sunday at the Faith Seventh-day Adventist Church in Frederiksted. The viewing starts at 9 a.m., and the service starts at 10 a.m.