Speaking Out: A Father Turns His Grief Into Advocacy, Involuntary Commitment in Pa., and Brutality In Africa

Photo by Joao Silva/New York Times

Photo by Joao Silva/New York Times

 A grieving father determined to change our system speaks out, a detailed examination of what’s happening in Pennsylvania since that state began shuttering its mental hospitals, and an alarming expose by The New York Times about Africans with psychiatric conditions, who are being chained for years in “prayer camps,” are three recent stories that I want to call to your attention.

James Cornick sent me an e-mail describing the ordeal that he went through trying to get meaningful help for his son, Jeff, who ended his life in a jail cell. James told me that his son’s death could have been prevented and he was going to do his best to demand county officials improve local services. A reporter with the Des Moines Register happened to hear James telling his story and the result was a moving newspaper account: Grieving Father: Stop Jailing People For Mental Illness. 

Within two months of the death, Jim Cornick started standing up publicly, demanding that society stop sending people to jail for being sick. The retired Meredith Corp. magazine publisher has met with the sheriff, the police chief, judges, lawyers, probation officers, county supervisors, legislators and the governor.

He doesn’t vent anger or claim that his son was harmless. He speaks calmly, offering specific proposals:

Families should be able to tell mental health professionals what they see happening in the lives of their ill relatives, he says. Commitment laws must be changed to make it easier for families to get patients in for help and to keep them in treatment for more than a few days.

Police and jail staff members should have more training in handling those with mental illness. People shouldn’t have to wait weeks or months for assistance. And if police come across someone whom a judge has ordered into treatment, the officers should automatically be notified of that order so they can take the person to a hospital.

His normally steady voice shakes when he is asked what he’s trying to accomplish. “I feel like maybe I can make a difference, move the needle a little bit, raise some awareness,” he said in an interview at his South of Grand neighborhood home.

His son didn’t mean to hurt anyone — including their family — by committing suicide, Cornick said. “He did it because he’d given up hope. He’d worked damned hard to get better, and he just couldn’t.” (read more here.)

I often get calls from reporters writing about mental illness, but few spend as much time doing research as did Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, a journalist with PennLive, whose been taking an in-depth look at the 2006 closure of Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg State Hospital – the state’s oldest public mental health facility — to discover what’s happened to the patients who were discharged. The series is called From Patients To Prisoners and Daniel spent a couple hours speaking to me about involuntary commitment laws. He was especially interested in commitment standards used in England and France. In the end, much of what I said ended up being cut because his story became so long, but that didn’t bother me. I appreciated his diligence.  He poured over more than 300 pages of legal transcripts and court orders when writing about commitments in Pennsylvania and the result shows in his  thorough reporting.

Michael then stepped toward her bed, brandished one of her metal walking canes, and struck her in the head with it. Badulak cried out and tried to stand up but her legs failed and she toppled to the floor. As she lay, Michael hit her again and again in the head, continuing to speak in his strange language. Badulak raised her hands to shield herself but Michael continued undeterred: he beat her until her fingers broke and her white bed, the white walls, the white vaulted ceiling and the pallets of white-shelled eggs that Badulak had yet to paint were splattered with blood…

McDaniel family believes that what happened on that day could have been avoided if Michael had received the help he needed when he needed it. While the failures of the system were multiple, the most glaring, perhaps, were those that occurred when Michael was in the depths of psychosis over the preceding five years.

On three different occasions, Michael’s family had involuntarily committed him to a psychiatric ward but, each time, Michael was released a few days later, or a few weeks later, still deeply delusional and with poor follow-up care. On many more occasions, Michael exhibited behavior that equally scared or disturbed his family but they were told repeatedly that he didn’t meet Pennsylvania’s commitment criteria.

Michael McDaniel’s story lies at the heart of one of the most contentious debates in the mental health care field. The McDaniel family, along with a subset of police officers, mental health care advocates, and correctional officers across the country, believe that states need to either rewrite their commitment laws – or be more willing to implement their existing laws – to make it easier to mandate that mentally ill people get treatment. (Read Michael’s story: Mentally ill man attacks his family after being deserted by Pa. health care)

The New York Times is one of the few newspapers that still cares about international reporting and on October 12, it published a front page story by Benedict Carey headlined: The Chains of Mental Illness in West Africa: Shackled Minds and BodiesCarey’s stories describes how Africans in Togo, who become symptomatic of a mental illness, are often bound, gagged, drugged and dragged by their families to “prayer camps” where they are kept in chains with the only care being prayers to remove “the devils” tormenting them.

One night in December 2012, when Mr. Gbedjeha was at a sister’s home, acting bizarrely, she dissolved a strong sedative into his soup, and he fell into a deep sleep. Komlan and two friends stole into his room and tied him up. 

“I cried and cried, seeing him like that,” Komlan said. “He, Koffi, who always was there for me.”

At Jesus Is the Solution, the camp secretary registered Mr. Gbedjeha as a patient and told Komlan the family would be responsible for his care and feeding. The siblings begged the youngest, Akossiwa, who was unmarried, to mind her brother; she reluctantly agreed.

And there was one more requirement.

“The chain,” Komlan said. “He told us we had to buy our own chain.” (read more here.)

I believe telling our stories is essential to bringing about reforms. Bravo to those making the effort.

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.