500,000 Miles and Counting: Coming Home From Baton Rouge — How I Keep From Being Discouraged

(3-2-2015) While flying home Friday from Louisiana, I reached a milestone. Somewhere above Tennessee, I crossed the half-million mile mark in jet travel and, yes, all of those miles were accumulated because of trips that I made to give speeches about the need for mental health reform.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation offered to re-schedule my Thursday night appearance because of my father’s death two days earlier. But I knew that the Foundation’s Patricia Calfee had spent months making arrangements for my speech and I also felt that focusing on something besides grieving for my father might be helpful. I also knew that if my dad had been alive, he would have insisted that I go. He was not one to break a promise. (I’ve posted links at the end of this blog about my Louisiana speech.)

It’s been eight years since I gave a first hand account in my book about how jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums. Sadly, there’s not been a drop in incarceration rates for persons with mental illnesses. Instead the number is growing.

The Foundation is trying to curb that trend in Baton Rouge. In January, it brought in my friend, Leon Evans, to describe how Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio) has reduced jail occupancy and saved millions of tax dollars by investing in jail diversion and community services. Next month, the Foundation is hosting Miami-Dade Judge Steven Liefman.

The Foundation’s efforts are being supported by Hillar Moore III, the East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney, and long-time Louisiana activist Pastor Raymond Jeston. In my speech, I warned that Louisiana has 17 times more persons with mental illnesses in its jails and prisons than its two state hospitals.

I wish there was a way to spread the positive momentum that is building in Baton Rouge. I must admit that after a half-million miles, trips to all but two states, and nearly two hundred speeches, sometimes it is easy to feel discouraged.

That’s especially true after a week of writing blogs about the preventable death of Natasha McKenna here in Fairfax. A few days after I first mentioned her death, I got an email from Bob Carolla, the director of media relations at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, telling me about another travesty. An Oregon judge decided to civilly commit a woman who was having suicidal thoughts, but there were no inpatient hospital beds available so she was locked up in jail for ten days even though she was never charged with a crime.

Next came an email from another reader about a Florida deputy caught callously dragging a woman with mental illness down a courthouse hallway as if she were a piece of luggage.

So how do I keep from getting discouraged by these incidents? I think of the everyday champions I’ve met during my travels.

Laura Pogliano inspires me. One of the first email exchanges that we had was about a magazine that Laura had chastised for publishing a photo spread that was demeaning to persons with mental illnesses. She later wrote a blog for me about a kind-hearted CIT officer who helped her son, Zack. She and Zack were soon telling their stories to local reporters and then to national publications, including USA Today. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) started a recent hearing about mental health by talking about Laura and her relentless fight to get Zack decent care. When Zack died recently, she did not stop her crusade. Her voice became louder.

When I see Laura Pogliano’s dedication and think of the work that scores of other advocates are doing, I feel both incredibly humble and grateful.

I wonder: if you hit a million miles, do they bump you up to first class?

I’ll let you know when I get there.

(articles and interviews that were published about my Baton Rouge trip.)

The Baton Rouge Advocate.  By Ben Wallace. “Author Speaks About Mental Health Crisis in Louisiana and Nation.”

The New Orleans Times Picayune by Diana Samuels : “How would you feel Dad if someone you loved killed himself?: Author Speaks about Mental Health.

Fox 44 Television report by David Lippman : Author Shares Personal Reasons Why Louisiana Should Expand Access to Mental Health Care. 

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.