From My Files: A Sister’s Love, A Mental Health Tragedy


I was outraged when Joan Bishop told me about the fate of  her sister, Linda.  I was so moved  that I published a two-part blog about Joan and Linda in February 2010.  A writer for New Yorker magazine, Rachel Aviv, would share the sisters’  story with a much larger audience in May 2011. 

Sadly, what happened to Linda still is happening. This is why we must continue speaking out. This is why we must continue to put a human face on failures in our mental health system. 

Linda’s Story: Part One, originally published February 2010

I’m going to tell you a story and I will warn you that it is a sad tale. It is also an important one because it is yet another example of how broken our mental health system is and how people are dying because of our ongoing failure as a society to help them.

This story begins in New Hampshire where I met Joan Bishop, a wonderful and kind woman, whose sister, Linda, developed a severe mental illness when she was in her 40s, which is later than most.

Joan described her sister as being smart. Linda breezed through high school easily earning “A’s.” She traveled through Europe with friends and earned an art history degree. She married and had a daughter. Life for the 5-foot-7 inch tall Linda with wavy light brown hair and bright blue eyes seemed blessed until she developed what doctors diagnosed as bipolar disorder and paranoia.

What happened next is an all too familiar story for many of us.

Linda’s life began falling apart. She began acting strangely. She would disappear without warning and she began self-medicating with alcohol. She divorced. Her daughter went to live with relatives. When Linda flipped over her car early one morning while drunk, she was arrested and taken to the Strafford County Jail where she got into even more trouble by throwing a cup of urine on a corrections officer. She was charged with felony assault.

Her sister, Joan, persuaded prosecutors to have Linda evaluated. Joan also petitioned to become Linda’s legal guardian. A judge, however, ruled against Joan, saying that Linda’s condition didn’t warrant it. Meanwhile, three different psychiatrists found Linda not competent to stand trial three times during a two year period. All this time, Linda refused treatment and steadfastly refused to take medication although medication had helped her in the past.
Linda finally was involuntarily committed to the New Hampshire State Hospital. The commitment was for up to three years, but the hospital released her after one year. There was no point in her staying because she refused all treatment and took no medication, which was her legal right.

By this point, Linda had turned against her sister and had refused to sign a HIPAA waiver, effectively cutting Joan out of the information loop.

Linda was discharged from the hospital without Joan’s knowledge. The first Joan learned about it was when a Christmas Card that she had mailed to Linda five months earlier was returned. And by then, it was too late.

So what happened to Linda?

The New Hampshire State Hospital should have set up a discharge plan for Linda that linked her with community services. A case manager should have been assigned to make certain Linda was getting help.

But Linda didn’t want help. She put down a fake address when she was asked by hospital officials where she was going. She continued to refuse treatment even though doctors knew she was ill.  In short, there was no outpatient treatment. No follow up to insure that Linda was getting help. Linda literally walked out of the state hospital mentally confused and no one paid any attention to where she was going.

As Joan later put it: “Upon her release, she had no money, no housing and no after care.”

Linda literally disappeared.

Eventually Joan would learn what happened after her sister was discharged and she would learn it from an unusual source  – Linda’s own diary.

Part two will appear on Monday and you will be outraged when you read what happened to Linda.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Hello Pete
    My name is Rantha. I live in Johannesburg, South Africa.
    Came across your website today., while perusing tru fb posts.
    Made interesting reading.. Yeah many, many heart wrenching stories with mental illness.

    I also have a a heart rending story of my own to share…my and my family’s battle with mental illness when I was Diagnosed with bipolar in the early nineties ..
    I love to write my book one day but need some help . Looking for a writer who can help me put it together….till next time.

    • Rantha – I would be interested in assisting you to write your story. You would need to contact Pete to give permission for him to give me your contact information, and then I will get in touch with you to discuss. I am a published author, USA.

  2. Many people come down w/ bipolar late in life. It is thought that the gene marker lies dormant or sleeping, until insurmountable stresses appear for the person. Many carry the gene and breeze thru life never to have the type of stresses to bring on the mental illness. This is one reason why PREVENTION is so important! Gosh, do we ever, need to push for grant and gov’t monies to research thouroughly on the CAUSES, which are many, and USEFUL practices, some which are already known, for PREVENTION!
    Again, thanx Pete!

  3. Heartbreaking.  So, so tragic.  My brother, who has schizophrenia,”disappeared” from a very large, well-known university hospital psychiatric ward. While outdoors on a “break” with a group of other patients, he managed to slip away from the group and disappeared into society. Long story short, we found him alive, thank god, but every second we spent searching for him was plagued by the unbearable thought of never finding him, never seeing him ever again… and spending the rest of our lives torturing ourselves by imagining every horrific fate possible.  When I read this story about Joan & Linda, my heart breaks.  After my brother’s very first psychotic break and hospitalization, this same university hospital did not even offer a discharge plan. The social worker merely said:  “I think there’s a clinic somewhere in Brooktown or Evansville…”  That was the extent of the discharge plan.   Needless to say, at the time we (his family) were clueless about what actions to take and he promptly fell through the cracks again and was hospitalized only a few months later. Over the last 20 years of my brother’s mental illness, we’ve met alot of wonderful & compassionate social workers and also some incompetent and burnt out social workers who exasperate me and make me wonder why they ever got into this type of work in the first place…