Michael Brown Shooting Got National Attention. What About Deaths of Mentally Ill Prisoners?

Christopher Lopez, 35, sits restrained with a spit hood over his head in the final hours of his life. (Provided by the Colorado Department of Corrections via a lawsuit by the estate of Christopher Lopez)

Christopher Lopez, 35, sits restrained with a spit hood over his head in the final hours of his life. (Provided by the Colorado Department of Corrections via a lawsuit by the estate of Christopher Lopez)


While I was reading and watching news coverage of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri,  I found myself thinking about the deaths of three prisoners who had severe mentally illnesses.

*Jerome Murdough, a 56 year-old former Marine with schizophrenia, died in his Rikers Island jail cell in New York  after he was arrested for sleeping in a stairwell to avoid inclement weather. Temperatures in his cell exceeded more than a 100 degrees and, as one city official later put it, Murdough “literally baked to death.” The officers watching him were supposed to be periodically checking on him, but didn’t.

*Darren Rainey, age 50, was locked in a shower stall with steam and scalding water for more than an hour as punishment by correctional officers in Florida after he defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up.  His screams for help were ignored and when his lifeless body was removed from the stall, his skin showed signs of “slippage,” which happens when badly burned flesh literally begins falling off. Rainey had a mental illness and was serving time for cocaine possession.

*Christopher Lopez, age 35, died from severe hyponatremia, a condition that develops when a person’s sodium levels fall fatally low. It’s been suggested that Lopez had been given too much psychotropic medication, which caused his body to begin shutting down. According to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by his family, several guards, nurses, and a mental health clinician stood outside Lopez’s cell, where he was lying  manacled on the floor, talking casually and laughing while he suffered a series of seizures. He had schizophrenia.

When I wrote my book CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, there were more than 360,000 individuals with mental disorders locked in our country’s jails and prisons, many for minor crimes.  Recent studies show that number has not changed. If anything, it has gotten higher.

The deaths of these three men are tragic examples of why individuals with mental illnesses should not be locked in jails and prisons. But our country’s refusal to fund community mental health services, enact programs that will stop the criminalization of persons who are sick, and our stubborn refusal to build appropriate mental hospitals where mentally ill persons who are violent can be safely held and receive meaningful treatment, all but guarantees future tragedies.

None of these three deaths received the national attention that Michael Brown’s death sparked. That’s unfortunate. Few of the national organizations that represent individuals with mental illnesses expressed public outrage over these deaths — there was no equivalent of the Rev. Al Sharpton speaking out on national television. That’s indefensible.

In spite of  this, more than 150,000 Americans have signed a petition asking the Justice Department to investigate Darren Rainey’s horrific death in a 180 degree shower stall. You can sign the petition here.  The release of a video and photographs of  Lopez’s death also have alarmed Colorado residents.  New York is re-examining how it treats its mentally ill prisoners too.

Small steps, but steps.

It’s easy to become discouraged — given how many of these deaths continue happening. But that should not keep us from speaking out.

In his eulogy at Brown’s funeral,  Sharpton said, “We are required to leave here today and change things.”

That same declaration applies to those of us who care about mental health reform. If there is one issue that all of the different fractions in the mental health community should be able to join together on it is this: we need to stop the inappropriate incarceration of people with mental illnesses.

Every such death deserves our attention and outrage.


Ten Years Later: I Still Miss My Best Friend


8-25-14  While my schedule keeps me from responding to all of the emails that I receive, I do read all of them. I especially enjoy reading personal stories. Here is one from a reader in Australia that I wish to share. While it is a sad note, it also describes the beauty of friendship. Having friends is important, especially when someone has a serious mental illness and often feels isolated and alone.  

Dear Pete,

I had a friend who took lithium for 25 years. It kept her sane and she was able to work fulltime, but it eventually destroyed her kidneys.
She was on dialysis for four years before she died in a private hospital.

When her kidneys began to fail, she had to be taken off lithium, and all sorts of other medication was tried to keep her thinking straight. Before she was on lithium, she was suicidal and jumped off the Auckland Harbor Bridge. She landed near a boat where men were fishing, and they dragged her aboard. The police picked her up and took her to hospital.

She was in a voluntary mental health ward for several months, after this followed a long road to recovery for her mental health.
Not many people knew her history, as she did not want people to know about her mental illness.  In your book, CRAZY, I recognized a lot of her symptoms and problems she had over the years.

She was diagnosed at aged 22 and died at age 50.

I had never had any dealings before with anyone with mental illness before I met her. We started working for the same company on the same day, and became best friends. It is very hard being a friend to a person like this, everyone else she knew gave up on her, but I stuck it out. I went to meetings with her mental health workers, with her mother and brother. I felt like they needed support.

She would say she hated me and did not want me at the meeting, but I refused to leave.

I shed many a tear over the years. I miss my best friend. She has been dead over 10 years now.

Best regards,


Opponents Form PAC, Murphy Stumps For Votes, Fight About Mental Health Continues


Representative Tim Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote this year, but the Pennsylvania Republican’s promise to reintroduce the bill in the coming legislative session continues to keep both its supporters and opponents busy.

Opponents have created a Stop The Murphy Bill Political Action Committee (PAC) to kill the proposed legislation. The PAC’s spokesperson, Jeanne Peschier, explained in a statement that the group will focus on mid-term elections and “will advocate for legislation that reduces forced psychiatric treatment and increases funding for alternatives to it. We will educate Congress and the public about the harms of forced psychiatric treatment.”  You can read more about the PAC and Jeanne Peschier at the Mental Health Civil Rights Protest blog.

Representative Murphy, meanwhile, has continued his tireless campaign to get support for his bill. Most recently, he has been traveling to other congressional districts to explain why the changes he is proposing should be implemented. His latest grassroots trip has been to North Carolina’s second district at the invitation of fellow Republican Representative Renee Ellmers. He’s also visited Florida’s Second District at the request of Republican Representative Vernon Buchanan.

G.G. Burns, who is an active supporter of Murphy’s legislation and a long-time activist in Kentucky for passage of Assisted Outpatient Treatment laws, was the first to call my attention to the newly formed anti-Murphy PAC.  In her note, she complained that the PAC’s backers, like several other consumer groups that oppose Murphy’s bill, receive federal funds.

It only takes a few seconds to trace this group back to SAMHSA through their technical assistance program (STARS) …I see very clearly how ‘tax dollars’ under the guidance of SAMHSA, and the “CONSUMERSTARS” program are instrumental in blocking action on our much needed AOT bills….

Murphy’s bill  would transfer money away from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) into the National Institute of Mental Health’s coffers, and gut the federal government’s Protection and Advocacy For Persons With Mental Illness Program (PAIMI). PAIMI regularly fights AOT laws, which is a key reason why Murphy and his bill’s supporters, want to reduce most of its funding.

So far, neither side on Capitol Hill has been willing to discuss a compromise between Murphy’s bill and the Strengthening Mental Health in Our  Communities Act that was hurriedly introduced by the Democrats when Murphy’s bill began gaining steam. Arizona Representative Ron Barber, who was wounded by Jared Loughner during the Tucson shooting of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, drafted the bill as an alternative to Murphy’s at the request of the Democratic leadership. It basically is a stripped down version of Murphy’s bill —  minus its most controversial changes, such as taking power and money away from SAMHSA, modifying HIPAA, requiring states to adopt AOT, adopting a need for treatment standard for involuntary commitment, and gutting PAIMI.

The mid-term elections are not expected to radically change the make-up of either the Senate or the House and because of that, it’s doubtful that much will have changed politically when Congress reconvenes.  The question is: will either side agree to a compromise?

I think this paragraph from a recent article by Tod Lindberg published in The New Republic about the mid-term elections correctly summarizes the situation we’re in.

Each party keeps looking to the next election to provide a decisive edge, but elections aren’t doing that. If the Senate flips in 2014, not much else is likely to change with it. As long as both sides see greater political advantage in inaction than in working together, there is no way out of this polarized, mistrustful standoff. And if Democrats have become all but invincible running for president, while Republicans, for structural reasons, keep holding onto the House, this might be the state of affairs for quite some time.

Florida College Renames “Maniac” Mascot Because Of Your Emails!

mascot1 (1)


Your voices have been heard!

Risdon Slate, a fellow mental health advocate, told me in April about an offensive mascot called The Maniac that a Christian college in Lakeland Florida had created.  I wrote a blog about how that mascot appeared to marginalize and stigmatize individuals with mental illnesses. Several of you agreed and voiced your concerns in emails to the college’s president.

This weekend, Risdon sent me this follow-up.

Say Goodbye to Maniac, Hello to Scorch

Published: Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 1:32 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 1:32 a.m.

LAKELAND | The Southeastern University student body has spoken: Goodbye, Maniac. Hello, Scorch.

Southeastern’s new mascot was recently renamed Scorch by the students through a social media promotion. The school initially launched the mascot as The Maniac in April in a tribute to the school’s unofficial spirit squad “The Pyromaniacs.”

The name proved to be problematic with advocates against stigmatizing those with mental health issues.

One such crusader is former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley, who is also a New York Times best-selling author for “The Hot House” and 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.”

Earley was one of a handful of people to email The Ledger in objection to the Southeastern mascot.

“The last time I checked, I was told that Christians supported helping those who might be sick or afflicted,” Earley said in a blog on his website. “They did not portray them in ways that belittled them and made their lives more difficult.”

Southeastern athletic director Drew Watson said the name was never meant to stick and the school even said in April it would change with the announcement of the social media promotion. It was meant to be a placeholder of sorts.

“The idea was to always throw it to the students,” Watson said. “We said all along we were going to rename him. There were people that had comments and an opinion but everything we do has that. There were some comments made but our retort to that was, ‘That’s not his name. We’re throwing it to the students and we’ll wait and see (what they come up with).’

“We certainly didn’t want to offend anybody.”

Southeastern also made some minor changes to the overall look of Scorch.

The school spent between $5,500 and $7,000 on the initial design, which was done by Cowan Costumes Inc., in Cleburne, Texas.

“We sent the suit away again,” Watson said. “He’s been upgraded. He still basically looks the same; we just made some cosmetic changes.”

Scorch coincides with Southeastern’s inaugural foray into football. The Fire will take the field for their first game in their new stadium Sept. 13 against The Sun Conference rival Warner University.

It’s also a part of a campaign the school is undergoing called Fire ’14.

“We’re trying to take the momentum of our first home game on Sept. 13 and parlay that into a big move in our community,” Southeastern Vice President for Student Development Chris Owen said in April.

[ Reach Ray Beasock at [email protected] or 863-802-7537. Follow him on Twitter @ItsBEASOCK or @Ledger_Colleges ]

Thank you Risdon and those of you who made your voices heard.

(Within moments after posting this blog, I received an email from a reader in Canada who told me about Anne Theriault’s successful effort to get  advertising in buses in Toronto removed. The ads were for a mystery game that urged people to escape from a psych ward. Theriault said the ads might discourage people who need help from seeking it.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the comments that were posted in the newspaper about her effort belittled her and complained about her successful campaign to get the posters removed. This should not surprise anyone. Maniac Mascots and Psych Ward mystery games are minor battles when compared to world events. But it is the little things in life that eventually add up to big things, and I believe it is important to fight these battles, no matter how small, in our continuing effort to reduce fear and stigma.

By:  Staff Reporter,  Toronto Star

The TTC is pulling down a series of ads for a mystery game business encouraging participants to escape from a psychiatric ward.

On Friday, the Star reported that Anne Thériault, 32, was among four people who filed formal complaints with the TTC asking that posters promoting the Mystery Room’s psychiatric ward escape game experience be removed.

Thériault, a former mental health hospital patient, said she was “grossed out” by the ads, which she believes could deter people from seeking treatment by depicting psychiatric wards as places that should incite fear.   anne

Anne Theriault, a 32-year-old yoga instructor and former mental health hospital patient, launched a complaint about a series of ads on TTC vehicles for a Mystery Room game encouraging participants to escape from a pyshc ward. She commends the TTC for acting quickly and ordering the removal of the ads.

She found the postings for the North York company challenging visitors to escape a room by deciphering clues especially “stigmatizing” in the wake of actor Robin Williams’ struggle with depression and recent suicide.

“I feel like it is one thing for that type of (business) to exist, but it is another thing for public transit to post advertisements for it,” she said. “We fund the TTC and that type of thing is super stigmatizing to anyone with mental illness who is in treatment at a psychiatric hospital or is considering it.”

Though ads are typically removed following a process requiring five complaints from the public and a decision from an advertising working group, the TTC overstepped the procedure to order the ads removed, according to spokesman Brad Ross.

“While nothing in this ad contravened TTC policy or any laws, we concur with customer concerns that were raised,” Ross said in an email to the Star, citing the TTC’s commitment to crisis prevention. “We will also review future advertising to ensure issues around mental health are more closely considered.”

Ross is unsure how fast the postings will be taken down, but said Mystery Room can submit new ones provided they meet TTC approval, laws, human rights codes and advertising standards.

Mystery Room owner Joe Burton said he has submitted new “generic” ads that do not intend to offend.

“We didn’t mean to offend anybody,” he said. “We were just thinking of scary themes and someone suggested a psych ward would be scary, but we didn’t really think of someone who was in one who might be offended.”

Thériault commends the TTC for acting quickly. On Friday night, she received an apology from Burton. “It was clearly something he hadn’t thought about, but that he wanted to make right.”

Clubhouses offer HOPE: We need more of them!



8-22-14  (The Hilton Foundation, http://hiltonfoundation.org, announced last month that Fountain House/Clubhouse International was chosen to receive the 2014 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.  At $1.5 million, the Prize is the world’s largest and most prestigious humanitarian award. It is presented to a non-profit judged to be doing extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering. This is the first time the Hilton Prize has been awarded to a mental health organization. In 2010, I wrote about the importance of clubhouses. Congratulations to Fountain House and to the many Clubhouses that it has helped launch.)

Clubhouses Change Lives

I am always touched when I hear recovery stories, especially those told by young people.  Jourdan Miller, a beautiful girl in her  early twenties, described how important the HOPE Clubhouse in Ft. Myers was to her recovery. As with so many of our young people, Jourdan had excelled as a teenager and had gone to college with big plans – only to become sick.  She was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and not long after that she became so ill that she had to drop out. At one point, she was suicidal. When she called the local police during a manic episode, rather than getting help, she ended up getting arrested and  jailed — “to be taught a lesson.”  That experience – at the hands of unsympathetic and poorly trained sheriff’s deputies — resulted in her developing PTSD.

Jourdan  spoke eloquently at a recent luncheon about how she was in such anguish that she simply wanted to give up —  until her parents got her to visit the HOPE CLUBHOUSE.

“The HOPE CLUBHOUSE,” she said. “Saved my life.”

The clubhouse was launched in Ft. Myers by a handful of concerned parents, who wanted someplace for their sons and daughters to go for help.  It is modeled after the successful FOUNTAIN HOUSE program in New York that has been helping persons with mental disorders for more than sixty years. Fountain House has been copied across our country and in many foreign countries. Its roots date back to 1944 when a group of persons with mental disorders organized: WANA  — an acronym  that meant –  We Are Not Alone.

Clubhouses are run entirely by their members. A major emphasis is helping members find meaningful work, even if it is only for a few hours. The sickest might be given a simple task at the clubhouse such as wiping down a table or sweeping up.  But most clubhouses offer members transitional work that can help them later obtain paying jobs.

Here’s how a typical clubhouse program works.  The Square Peg Company needs a mail room employee so it contacts the clubhouse. The clubhouse might send one member to the mailroom to work for two hours at the job. That member will then be replaced by another member who works for three hours and finally by a different clubhouse member who finishes the shift. The mailroom job gets done each day, which makes the company happy, and three clubhouse members get work experience.

This model helps members whose illnesses might limit how long they can work at a task. It also helps members pump-up their resumes. Most importantly, it provides members with the opportunity to work, which gives them a purpose. It helps restore confidence and pride.

Having members run a clubhouse enables people who are sick to have a voice in their own recovery. Oftentimes, they are told by doctors, their parents,  other relatives or by mental health workers what they can and can’t do. They are told to lower their expectations.  Letting them be in charge and make decisions is important because it enables members to set their own goals and then strive to achieve them. Clubhouses also build a sense of community. If someone begins to have problems, the other members recognize it and intervene.

I have toured Fountain House and other successful clubhouse programs, such as The Carriage House, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and have seen how  the clubhouse model helps people recover.

As clubhouses expand, they often offer their members other services in addition to job training and fellowship. Many clubhouses help with housing.  Having a safe place to live is essential to recovery.

Jourdan ended her testimonial on a happy note. She explained that she had met and fallen in love with another clubhouse member. They plan to marry.  More important, she said she was  moving on with her life. She was no longer depressed. She was not alone. Today, she is optimistic and confident about her future.

One reason why I was so happy to speak at the HOPE CLUBHOUSE is because in my talks, I talk about the need for HOPE.

To me, recovery is much like an old fashioned wagon wheel.  Each spoke is a different recovery tool. Jobs are a spoke in this wheel, so is housing, so is medication, so is transportation, so is social acceptance — the spokes go on and on.

But the hub that pulls all of these recovery spokes together is HOPE. Without HOPE, there can be no recovery.

I am not naive. I do not believe everyone who is sick will eventually get better. Like cancer, severe mental illnesses are ruthless.  But most can and do, and even in the most severe cases, I believe that we must offer people HOPE.

I’ve seen cases where patients were described as being “un-restorable” and “treatment resistant.” Yet, they have recovered despite such hopeless tags. We don’t know who will get better and who will not. That is why we must offer everyone hope.

Inspirational writer Hal Lindsey is credited with saying:

Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for a second without hope.

Federal Prosecutors’ Thirst For Revenge: The Nexus Between Robin Williams and John Hinckley


(8-18-2014)  Robin Williams’ suicide touched a wide swath and judging from the number of emails that I received, those of us who deal with mental illnesses  felt especially compelled to comment. But while Williams’ death saddened me, it was a less noticed news item last week that alarmed me.

Federal prosecutors announced they were considering filing new charges against would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. after a Virginia medical examiner ruled that former White House press Secretary James Brady’s recent death was a homicide.

Hinckley shot Brady while trying to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981 outside a Washington D.C. hotel. However, Brady didn’t die until earlier this month while living in a Virginia retirement home. He was 73 years old.

For the past 33 years, Hinckley has been confined mostly in a locked mental ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital where he was sent in 1982 after jurors found him not guilty by reason of insanity. In December, a judge ruled that Hinckley, now 59, could spend 17 days a month at his mother’s gated Virginia community where he must be under supervision. He is required to wear a GPS device when he is not supervised. His lawyers have pushed for 24 days of supervised visits and eventually hope he can return to society unsupervised.

Why would federal prosecutors put Hinckley on trial for murder, especially since most legal experts say it would be impossible to win such a case and have questioned what would be gained if they did?

It could be argued prosecutors are being diligent because they suspect Hinckley is still dangerous. A more cynical view is their announcement was a publicity stunt to assure the public they are being “tough” on crime.

For those of us with family members who have run afoul of the law while in the midst of a psychotic episode, there is a more frightening explanation. The prosecutors’ actions reflect an underlying disbelief in our society that mental health treatment works, that individuals can recover, and when they do, they deserve to be welcomed back into society.

More than 360,000 Americans, who have been diagnosed with serious mental disorders, are currently locked up in jails and prisons, often for minor crimes such as trespassing. Studies show defendants with known mental health issues spend three times longer in our jails than others charged with identical offenses. Many find it difficult to obtain housing and employment after they are released because of lingering suspicion and stigma. Often they hide their medical diagnosis from their friends. Would you want your son or daughter marrying someone who had been diagnosed with a mental illness? Now substitute the word “a heart condition” for mental illness. Would you feel the same anxiety even though both are considered medical problems?

Robin Williams was certainly never charged with a violent act. His mental troubles and addictions caused him to turn inward and harm himself. Hinckley’s disorders caused him to act out and tragically hurt others. There is a difference and society must react accordingly. But we must also realize there is a nexus.  Both deserve our understanding and compassion.

The public’s reaction to the loss of Robin Williams shows the U.S.A.’s great sympathy for those suffering with mental disorders. The federal prosecutors’ announcement shows we still have far to go.