John Walked Out Of A Treatment Center and Jumped From A Bridge. Why?

My Brother John

(2-20-19) Programs created to help individuals beat their addictions are cropping up all across our country because of the opioid epidemic. Sadly, some recovery programs either ignore or are ill prepared to deal with co-occurring addictions and mental illnesses.

My Brother Died Because Of Our Failing Mental Health Care System

By Amy Page

Let me tell you about my brother, John.

On October 4th, at roughly 10:50 am, he lost his hard-fought battle with a severe mental disease, Bipolar I Disorder, after countless attempts by him and our family to get help here in Texas.

It’s clear to us that the facility that was court ordered to help him failed.

It accused him of lying about his symptoms, trying to manipulate their program, refused months of attempts by our family to have him transferred to another treatment program, and allowed him to walk out the front door of their facility where he jumped off the bridge of a nearby overpass.

He was 34 years old.

While John’s death was completely devastating for everyone who was lucky enough to know him, his is only one story of the thousands who suffer on a daily basis.

My brother was one of my favorite humans.

He was funny, smart, great at everything he tried and would do just about anything to help anyone. And he LOVED disc golf. It was almost all he did with his spare time. He had a goal of playing disc at every course in the United States, even had a map of the US in his room with hundreds of little pins already marking the courses he’d played.

He was an outdoorsman too. He loved hiking, camping, and building epic fires that burned through rain storms. He made the best shrimp gumbo. He was an incredible engineer who could build anything. Didn’t even need blueprints. Just his imagination, his math ninja skills, a pencil and some wood.

During Christmas break last year he spent 3 days building an awesome treehouse at my dad’s office for my daughter Bella. He loved to laugh and I loved to make him laugh because he was the kind of person that laughed with his whole being. It was such a great laugh. He was a wonderful son, brother & friend, especially to his dog Lucy.

More than 11 years ago, John was diagnosed with a severe mental disease, Bipolar I Disorder (with psychotic features).

This disease presents slightly differently in each patient but for John it meant a sudden high manic state with little warning prior to losing control; rapid speech; impulsive decisions that made no rational sense, like giving away everything he owned (on several occasions); delusions of grandeur (thinking he was the messiah, that he was superhuman and could do anything, etc.); hyperactivity; unpredictability; aggressive behavior; and substance abuse (while he was manic).

These side effects of the disease, as anyone can imagine, do not always abide by laws, so on several occasions in a manic episode, John did something illegal. Even during the manic times, John must have had moments of some kind of clarity and would almost always reach out for help — to his family, to the police, or commit himself to a hospital (where he would be released within days) and because the system is so broken it would take MONTHS for him to finally land somewhere he could stay long enough for his meds to kick in (lately this happened when he was in jail).

After the first episode, John could sense a manic episode coming on and he would ask to be taken to a mental health facility.

He knew that he needed help and tried to get it.

In Texas, many of these facilities are privately owned. They now only keep patients as long as Medicare will pay for their stay, ie, between 7-10 days. The patients are then discharged as ‘stable’. He would always leave these private hospitals more manic than he was when he went in. But at least while he was an inpatient, he was safe, at least that is what we believed.

When he got out, it was chaos. It often continued for several months, ending either in jail or in a long term mental health hospital after being assessed and transferred (when beds were available). The months of mania were always followed by more months of depression; when the weight of everything he did while he was manic set in.

He would wonder “What now? I don’t have anything left. I embarrassed myself in front of all my friends. I hurt my loved ones and did unforgivable things. I have legal issues to deal with, so I won’t pass background checks for employment and won’t be able to get a job. I am a burden to my family, today my parents and when they’re gone I’ll be a burden to my siblings.

I have nothing to live for. What is the point?”

And every time … his inner strength, determination, will power, and light would find its way to help him decide there was a reason to keep trying. Because John saw a greater purpose and wanted to help people.

In June, after violating parole (on parole for taking my mother’s car and violating it for taking my dad’s truck – all while actively manic) he was ordered by a judge to go to a private facility in Houston that specialized in addiction, not mental illness. The judge told him to comply and complete the treatment, or he would go to prison.

By this time, the mania was gone and the depression began to set in. He was severely depressed, severely anxious and his ‘treatment’ in this facility included 5 hours of group therapy 7 days a week. You see, except for the drugs, they apparently treat all the patients the same. Since most of the people in this particular facility were struggling with addiction to opioids, John’s treatment was the same as theirs. And because John is severely socially anxious when he is bipolar depressed, this just contributed to his anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.

My mother spoke with him several times a day and he begged her to get him into a treatment program that suited his needs. It was clear he was only getting worse each day. Since John was court ordered to be there, we were told that he would go to prison if we were to pick him up and check him out.

Meanwhile, the facility (who was being paid large sums daily from Medicare) was reporting back to the courts that he was making progress. For almost 3 months my mother did everything she could possibly think of to try to get him transferred but was denied at every turn.

She was accused of ‘enabling him’ was told “we are professionals and know what we’re doing, MOM.”

He was told he needed to “man up” and stop relying on his mom for everything. She tried talking to his doctor and treatment team to help them get records of his medication and historically what had worked for him, but they continued to put him on handfuls of different meds (he was only on 2 while stable). It was as if his past medical history didn’t matter.

The week before he died, my mom finally emailed the head of the program pleading for help to fill out the needed form for a transfer to a state hospital. She was told that John’s doctor did not believe he qualified for a transfer so the director would not fill out the form.

We found in his medical records after he died that each day his case workers had written “suicidal ideation” in his chart … yet they did not take action to protect him from himself.

He suffered so much.

Every day, he counted the hours until he could take his meds and just go to sleep. He was in constant agony and said to me several times “I just want peace”.

He described his thoughts racing in circles, he felt like he needed something more than he has ever needed anything in his life but didn’t know what it was, and feared to talk to or look at people because they wouldn’t understand or they would “see into my thoughts”.

One of the last things we found written in his journal was: “I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. My mind is attacking me. I need help. Please help me. Please help me. Please help me. Please help me. Please help me.”

Those suffering with Severe Mental Disease and Mental Illness need our help, understanding, and love as they learn to survive with and manage their disease.

Helping those who are sick is a group effort, and that includes family members. It includes correct and compassionate treatment by medical professionals, including peers, jail diversion strategies for our cities, resources for the mentally ill and understanding from friends and their communities.

We need to educate ourselves and understand that individuals who are sick often can not control their actions.

And most important, we should not turn our backs on them when they need us the most.

John died because of failures in the system. And there are so many Johns out there who are alive and suffering right now and who can’t get the help they need because of these failures.

My mom and I have been trying to figure out ways to help influence the changes that are needed. One of the things on our list led us to the newly created Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health. This Commission was created to help make recommendations to legislature on needed changes to the Texas court system for those who commit crimes while sick. Mom was able to speak with the Director there and told her John’s story. The director was very receptive to ideas and asked for us to work on putting a list together of examples where the system broke down for John.

Please join us in telling your stories to whoever will listen, especially those in government, including sheriffs, police chiefs and judges, but also mental health professionals.  If you are compelled to help financially, we ask donations be made in memory of John Cockrell to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (www.bbrfoundation.org) to fund further research on Mental Illness. 100% of donations are used for research.

Our friend, brother and son lost his battle with a misunderstood and severe disease, Bipolar Disorder I. We want to do our part to prevent what happened to John from happening to others. We hope someday there will be help available in every community for those in crisis at the time they need it, and even ways to prevent a crisis in the first place. John’s amazing disc golf friends are putting on an annual John Cockrell Memorial tournament to raise money to help bring a local mental health crisis center to Tarrant County, Texas. We are planning a local meeting to discuss ways that John’s story, and other stories like his, can help bring better understanding and hopefully influence needed changes in the system. If you need to contact us, please email my mom at [email protected]

Thank you for reading,

John’s sister, Amy

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.