Stepping Up Campaign Urges Communities To Stop Jailing Persons With Mental Illnesses: NAMI Is Telling 31 Stories in 31 Days

It’s hard to describe mania to someone who has never experienced it. One minute I’m so high that my mind and body enter a nirvana-like state with feelings of ultimate power and supreme authority. And then in the next minute I feel so paranoid and scared that I think my heart will thump out of my chest.  Paton-Blough-300x300

In 2005, my mania escalated to the level that I believed a police officer was trying to pull me over to murder me. I took the police on a high-speed chase and was arrested for the first time in my life. A couple of days later, I believed I was waging nuclear war with China and President Bush was obeying my signals from my jail cell. I thought a microchip was implanted in my lung and the evil forces of the government were trying to control my actions. I was eventually placed in a mental health hospital and remained there for nearly a month.

This is how Paton Blough begins his personal story about his encounter with law enforcement. Paton’s narrative is the first in an ambitious series called 31 Stories in 31 Days being launched this month by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Each day during May a different story will be told, including one later this month by my son, Kevin Earley.

NAMI’s 31 Stories in 31 Days will put human faces on a shameful, national scandal — the inappropriate incarceration of persons with mental illnesses in our jails and prisons. (An estimated 500,000 persons!) The program was created to augment a new national effort called Stepping Up that is being launched on Tuesday (May 5th) by NAMI,  the Council of State Governments, the National Association of Counties, the American Psychiatric Foundation and numerous law enforcement associations, mental health organizations, and substance abuse organizations.

The goal of the Stepping Up campaign is to publicize how jails have become the new dumping ground for persons with mental illnesses and why that is wrong. The coalition of groups behind Stepping Up are urging county and local leaders throughout America to look at jails in their communities and develop diversion plans.  SteppingUpLogo

Stepping Up comes at a time when our political leaders are finally realizing that the cost of jailing individuals, who are mentally ill, is a poor use of tax dollars. Community treatment not only saves lives but saves money. My friends, Leon Evans, in Bexar County (San Antonio) Texas and Judge Steven Liefman in Miami Dade County, Florida (yep, the city where I exposed brutality and horrific jail conditions in my book) are both involved in Stepping Up. Their communities are now being seen as models in jail diversion. (Sadly, Fairfax County where I live is embarrassingly behind, in part, because of a lack of support by county judges.)

Thank you NAMI for helping create Stepping UP and for putting together 31 Stories in 31 Days. 

And thank you Paton Blough for having the courage to be the first to tell your story. Studies have found that the most effective way to fight stigma is by having individuals tell their personal stories. It’s why I wrote my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, and why I was thrilled to assist Jessie Close in the writing of her memoir:  RESILIENCE: Two Sisters and A Story of Mental Illness.

I often receive emails from readers asking how they can help fix our broken system. Here’s an opportunity for all of you to take action. Investigate if your county and local leaders are aware of Stepping UP and if they aren’t, then make them aware. Share this blog and the Stepping Up and 31 Stories in 31 Days websites with your friends on Facebook!

Let’s put pressure on every community to begin emptying their jails of persons whose real crime is that they got sick!

Fatal tragedies, such as the  Natasha McKenna case here in Fairfax, can be prevented. McKenna would be alive today if the Washington D.C. area implemented jail diversion programs like those in San Antonio!

Here’s the rest of Paton’s story.

My stay in jail and the hospital set off a chain of rapid-cycling; I was experiencing a manic high every six months alternating with depressions so severe I would beg God to end my life. I experienced severe delusional paranoia during the high times, and every time the police confronted me I was convinced they were there to kill me. People would inevitably call the police because of my erratic behavior during my times of psychosis, and I was arrested six times during those three years. I never had a criminal record before my manic episodes, but I ended up receiving multiple misdemeanor and two felony convictions—one for assaulting (spitting on) a jail intake officer and a second for threatening the life of a public official, both while incarcerated.

When I got out of jail, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greenville allowed me to share my stories of police interaction and to act out scenarios as part of a 40-hour crisis intervention team class. When I present, I want the officers to understand how bizarre psychosis can be. I go into detail about how your head gets to that point. I don’t want to scare anyone, but there are so many people who have had this happen to them and don’t want to talk about it. I want the officers to have this insight into psychosis so they can keep themselves safe, but keep people like me safe too.

Perhaps the biggest turning point in my recovery story was in 2009, when 30 officers applauded after my first ever presentation in a Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) class. One of the officers who had previously arrested me was in that class and we hugged in front of everyone. Since that time I have been involved in the training of more than 250 officers.

The biggest shame of my life has been my criminal record—now I get to take my experiences and help save lives in my community.

Paton Blough is a mental health advocate living in Greenville, S.C. Paton is the founder of and on the board of NAMI South Carolina. He lives with bipolar disorder.

This profile is part of a series that will publish 31 stories in 31 days during Mental Health Month. See how NAMI is working with others on The Stepping Up Initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.


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.