Testimony reveals gaps in mental healthcare for Kendrex White

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Former University of Texas, Austin student Kendrex White, 22, who killed one student and injured three others in a 2017 stabbing attack was found not guilty of the attack by reason of insanity Tuesday.

The rare judgment was made after defense attorneys, state prosecutors and Judge Tamara Needles all agreed that White was both suffering from a mental illness that caused him to behave the way he did and he also didn't know what he did was wrong.

Mental health experts hired by both sides diagnosed White with schizoaffective disorder and both determined he was not able to decipher right from wrong when attacked his fellow students.  

White was sent to the Vernon campus of North Texas State Hospital -- the only maximum security mental health facility in the state -- for further evaluation.

Many assumed in 2017 that White would be put on trial murdering freshman Harrison White and assaulting three others and expected a conviction. But instead, the trial wound up being a heated court proceeding about the complex nature of severe mental health issues. 

Witness testimony Tuesday revealed White experienced a mental breakdown roughly a month before the attack and was hospitalized twice because he was displaying symptoms of psychosis. 

State-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Maureen Burrows told KXAN Tuesday that she believes the problem is greater than one person's actions. "There might be bigger systems to blame, like how to take care of our mentally ill better or how to get mental health more effectively treated early on in the illness," she said.

Some of White's psychoses included visual and auditory hallucinations, the feeling of being buried alive and believing he was Jesus Christ. Burrows was clear that White's symptoms were not drug-induced.

While there is no known cure for White's disorder many burn out on the medications which can cause side effects like weight gain, Burrows said. 

The timeline

 --- White took "standard baseline classes" in the first two of years of college, according to Prosecutor Michelle Hallee. He was a biology major on a PreMed track and was among the top PreMed students at UT. "But come that semester [Spring 2017], his degree classes really started kicking in, he had three or four science-related classes in addition to Spanish -- it was really gearing up for him," she explained. 

 --- White's mental condition began to deteriorate several weeks before he attacked his fellow students on May 1, 2017. “Probably Mr. White was trying hard to be a good student, those stressors of being at college are very commonly associated with a first (mental) break,” Burrows said in court.

--- The first time someone noticed White exhibiting odd symptoms was when he was arrested for DWI in early April of 2017, right next to the UT campus. White's mother testified that she picked him up and noticed him acting strangely. At first, she chalked his bizarre behavior up to sleep deprivation, but then she grew concerned and took him to Metroplex Hospital in Killeen. 

--- During that hospitalization, doctors noticed White's psychoses. Defense attorney Jana Ortega said White was agitated and was having visual and auditory hallucinations. 

--- He was given a shot of "Invega Sustenna" and "Trileptal" which seemed to calm him down. Ten days later doctors believed he was healthy enough to be released and he was discharged from the hospital. Ortega said White did miss class while he was in the hospital and a note was sent to the Dean of his college and his professors while he was in the hospital.  

--- After his release, White's parents kept in touch with him and made constant trips from Killeen to Austin to check on him. Sometimes they thought he seemed fine, but sometimes they were concerned. White's mother and friends testified that they noticed significant changes in his demeanor that month. He was saying weird things, singing to himself, calling himself Jesus, and driving erratically, they said. 

--- Friends testified that they tried to help. One suggested counseling and others tried to talk to him. Sometimes he seemed interested in counseling, but after his DWI arrest he didn't want to hear suggestions of going to counseling. 

--- On April 26, just five days before the attack, White's mom called APD with concerns because White had been sending her text messages that seemed suicidal. Four police officers responded to this call and transported White to University Medical Center, Brackenridge for 'suicidal ideation.' He was checked in at 12:45 a.m. and released three-and-a-half hours later, sent in a taxi back home. Ortega said she was not sure why he was ultimately discharged, but she did say that medical staff attributed the stress he was under to the pressures of college. 

--- On May 1, White attacked four of his fellow students near a food truck on UT campus, killing one and injuring three others. 

Mental health risk in college

Ortega said her team believes that the pressure of academics factored into White's mental breakdown. She is also unsure if he ever sought mental health services on campus. 

Hallee added that prior to her work as an ADA she worked in mental health. She explained that mental illness tends to appear in a person's late teens or early 20's, when they are first living out on their own. 

"It may never get triggered unless there's a significant stressor in their life, and for many people going off to college is a significant stressor," Hallee said. 

"18 to 25 is also the age of a lot of first onset of mental health issues," explained Chris Brownson, the director of UT's Counseling and Mental Health Center. "Sometimes students go to college and because of the age that they are it's the first time they experience an anxiety attack [or] and episode of depression." 

He noted that academic stress can certainly play a role in those mental health issues, currently the UT campus is in the thick of finals season and which means busy season for the counseling center.

It's impossible to know exactly how many students on campus are dealing with mental illness because those diagnoses are kept private by state and federal law. But plenty students at UT are seeking out services, Brownson explained that each year more and more sign up for counseling. 

Since the stabbing attack, Brownson explained UT has done several things to make counseling services more accessible. The university has added more counselors and President Fenves opted to subsidize the $10 fees students previously had to pay to make a counseling appointment on campus. 

Brownson acknowledged that fear and stigma can prevent people on campus from seeking help with mental illnesses. 

He wanted to clear up one misconception: "individuals with mental health issues -- whether they're stressed or not -- are not prone to violence, in fact it's very rare, individuals with mental health issues are much more likely to be victims of violence."

He explained that in recent years, the university has placed more focus on trying to get students and employees to make a report when they have concerns for someone else at UT. 

"We call it bystander intervention, the idea that we want people in their community to be paying attention to those around them," Brownson said. 

"The biggest thing we want to do when we have a member of our community at UT [do when] something is wrong with friends or peers our colleagues is to intervene, is to talk to that person if that individual is experiencing any kind of distress, making sure that they're aware of the resources available to them on campus," he added.

Of course, he noted, if someone seems to be in immediate danger to themself or others,  you need to call 9-1-1. 

But with concerns which don't rise to an emergency level, he encourages UT community members to contact the Behavioral Concerns Advice Line (BCAL) at 512-232-5050, you can remain anonymous if you call the line. You can also make reports online, though that requires a university email address. Brownson explained that the BCAL line is staffed by professionals who will talk to you, and start the chain of action to either contact the person involved or relay information to you to help out. 

Joell McNew has been advocating for students to contact BCAL with concerns through hew work as president of the nonprofit SafeHorns, which advocates for safety on and around the UT campus. SafeHorns has launched a campaign called #Report4Harrison, encouraging people (in memory of UT student Harrison Brown who was slain in the stabbing attack) to call BCAL with concerns for the well-being of people they know on campus. 

"What are we going to do to be proactive to support students who are struggling with mental illness and the stress of higher academics?" McNew said to members of the press following White's court proceedings Tuesday. "That needs to seriously be talked about." 

After hearing the details of White's mental health history in court, she hopes UT takes an active role in trying to help other students with serious mental illnesses. 

"I think there needs to be a really strong statement coming back from UT about the focus about what we're going to do about mental health wellbeing," she said. 

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