Whenever I give a speech, I know there are parents in the audience who have been through much worse than what my family experienced. I was reminded of this last week when I spoke at Cayuga Community College in Auburn, New York, at the invitation of the local chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
*One parent told me that when she took her adult son to a hospital emergency room, he was not separated from others waiting there even though he was hearing voices and psychotic. He became enraged when another person in the crowded waiting room mistakenly picked up his soda. He attacked and broke that person’s arm. He ended up in jail on felony charges.
*Another parent recalled how her son had been expelled and banned from receiving services at a local mental health clinic after he wrote a profane and threatening letter to his case manager. That case worker’s boss called the police and, again, the person with mental illness was taken to jail and charged.
*The worst story came from a mother who gave me a lengthy, typewritten report about her attempts to help her adult son. At one point, this mother was told to practice “tough love” so she kicked her son out of her house when he refused to take his anti-psychotic medications. He began self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana. When her son showed-up at her house unannounced and psychotic, the police were called. Her son was arrested for trespassing and when he reached the jail, he began screaming about how invisible men were crushing his head. Officers put him in a holding cell where he attempted suicide. The correctional officers got to him in time, but a melee broke out and the prisoner bit one of the officers. He was charged with felony assault. At his court hearing, there was no mention of his mental condition. A judge sentenced him to between one year and three years in a state prison where he was brutalized by prison gangs and got into more trouble. This time, he grabbed a psychologist’s neck during a therapy session. That got him an extra four year sentence. Because of his untreated mental disorder, prison officials were reluctant to parole him early. This meant, he served his entire sentence and when he was done, he was turned loose with no re-entry plan, no medication, and no parole officer. His mother took him home and, shortly thereafter, he attacked her with a knife. Although she refused to file charges against her son, a prosecutor filed them anyway and – you guessed it – he ended up back in prison.
All three of these incidents should have been avoided. In the first case, simply keeping a psychotic person away from other people in a hospital waiting room would have solved the problem. I understand why a case manager would be alarmed if they received a threatening letter, which is what happened in the second incident. But if a person with mental problems is banned from treatment, how can he/she get better? The third incident is the most tragic because it is all too common. A person who is ill gets in trouble for a minor crime and then becomes entangled for years in the criminal justice system. That case could have ended differently if there had been effective Crisis Intervention Team training and jail diversion programs in place, as well as, a mental health court. The prisoner’s mother told me that her son had become a “victim of our broken mental health system.”
She was right.
These stories are especially troubling because they happened in New York, which always scores high when its mental health services are graded. The director of New York’s Office of Mental Health, Michael F. Hogan, was chair of the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. Historically, the state spends more on mental health care for its citizens than any other state. Only the District of Columbia spends more per capita.
Which makes me wonder: if these problems are happening in New York, what’s going on in the rest of our country?
Another observation that I’ve made whenever I give a speech is that there are parents in the audience who have and are making a difference in their communities. In Auburn, one such couple is Terri and Bart Wasilenko. After their son, Chris, became ill, Terri and Bart started a NAMI chapter. That’s right, the two of them started a NAMI chapter. Today, Chris is a trainer and speaker in NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program.
The parents who tell me about the problems that they’ve faced trying to help their loved ones are a constant reminder to me about how much we still have to do to fix our mental health system.
Terri and Bart remind me that individuals can and do make a difference when they commit themselves to bringing about improvements.
They give me hope that someday, I will hear more success stories than horrible tales when I travel to give a lecture.