British casino arsonist is a stark reminder of the mental health “shadow pandemic”

Jon Pill
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Posted on: December 23, 2020 2:00 pm EST

The Genting Casino in Bournemouth, UK was the target of an arson threat on September 28th, 2020. Amir Abol Abolghassem managed to get a five-liter water bottle full of gasoline past security by claiming it was a birthday gift for a staff member.

What followed, according to testimony given in his trial this week, was a dramatic showdown. First up, Abolghassem made his way to the mezzanine floor and chucked a coffee table over the railings. That got the room’s attention.

He then delivered a speech on the dangers of gambling, and pointed the patrons to the door. The cap came off the bottle and he sluiced down the roulette tables before pulling a lighter.

The prosecutor said Abolghassem gave an impassioned speech in which he said his life was over and that “places like [casinos], needed to be burned down.”

The prosecutor then described the 17-minute negotiations between P.C. William Martindale and Abolghassem. In the end, Abolghassem put the lighter down. But it wasn’t game over yet. Next, he pulled a boxcutter and held it to his own throat.

The prosecutor added that “within a couple of minutes P.C. Martindale calmed [Abolghassem] down and arrested him.”

The strange blend of gambling hall setting and court drama, the character of the suicidal crusader, and the motifs of thwarted immolation and psychic despair all gave the scenario a decidedly Dosdoevskian air.

Mental health nightmare

When the pandemic began and we all locked down and sheltered in place, there were dire predictions of a secondary “shadow pandemic”. A mental health disaster caused by isolation, financial worries, fear of the novel coronavirus itself, and further loss of already stretched mental health resources.

They warned us of a ramping up in cases of mood disorders. And that this would be accompanied by a reduction in the number of people being treated for them.

Bipolar disorder kills 4% to 19% of its sufferers by suicide. Depression kills roughly 1 in 50 in the same way. The boxcutter to the throat almost made Abolghassem into another tragic statistic.

It became clear during the trial that Abolghassem was dealing with a lot. He was a gambling addict who lost £400,000 to the casino, his job to the pandemic, and his mother and sister to the grave. All in pretty short order. It is understandable then that he cracked.

Abolghassem’s defense lawyer said of his crimes that, “It would appear that these offenses were carried out in a misguided attempt to show others that that particular casino was not a good place to visit. He didn’t want others to end up in the sorry state that he was.”

With typical British understatement, the Recorder, Q.C. Oba Nsugbe said, “It was quite an extreme way in which to send a message of deterrence.”

The judge however viewed the case with some leniency. The court gave Abolghassem a 20-month prison sentence suspended for two years, and a 10-year restraining order that bans him from any gambling premises in the U.K. A rare case of compassion in the law.

To all the rest of you out there, take care of yourselves. And speak to your doctor if you’re struggling with your mental health.

Featured image source: Flickr