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.

Fairfax County, Va. Leaders Continue To Push For Better Mental Health and Substance Abuse Care

Judge Tina Snee of the Fairfax County General District Court. “Graduation” for defendants who successfully completed requirements on the Fairfax County Mental Health Docket.

(12-1-21) I am delighted that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is continuing to focus on decriminalizing mental illnesses and treating substance abuse.

Earlier this month, General District Court Judge Tina L. Snee held yet another graduation ceremony for individuals who’d completed requirements set through her mental health docket. (In Virginia, there are no mental health courts, only dockets.) Judge Snee has been a champion in overseeing this important tool in our county’s jail diversion efforts. Circuit Court Chief Justice Penney S. Azcarate first opened the door by establishing a veterans’ docket. Both should be commended.

Jeffrey C. McKay, chair of the Board of Supervisors, recently highlighted other steps the country is taking to improve mental health and substance abuse services. (See below) McKay has done a masterful job in building on a foundation that his predecessors, Chair Sharon Bulova and Supervisor John C. Cook, established.

Not surprisingly, Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid continues to be a driving force in pushing the county forward. She was a crucial in launching the county’s Diversion First program, is nationally recognized as a proponent of the Stepping Up Initiative, and has implemented dozens of meaningful changes at the adult detention center, such as offering tele-psychiatry services in the jail. She changed the jail’s long standing policy of releasing inmates at 12:01 a.m., shifting discharge to 8 a.m., a time when transportation, shelter, medical care and other community resources are more readily available. Since 2016, she has invited NAMI support groups into the jail six times a year. She routinely talks to parents and spouses who are concerned about an incarcerated loved one with a mental illness and/or substance abuse problem.

Those of us who live in Fairfax County should be grateful for Chair McKay, the board, Judges Snee and Azcarate, the CSB’s Daryl Washington, and especially Sheriff Kincaid.

Now, if we can only do something about securing affordable housing and increasing access to treatment beds.

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Peg’s Foundation Honors Mental Health Heroes: Compass Award For Lifetime Advocacy

Pictured Front row, L to R: James K. Tudhope, DNP, Wendy Umberger PhD, PMHCNS-BC, Barbara Drew, PhD, Kent State University College of Nursing Back row: Nelson Freed; David D. Baker, PhD; Mia Klinger, Ballet Excel Ohio; and Pete Earley

(11-23-21) News Release From Peg’s Foundation. For immediate release.

On November 11, 2021, Peg’s Foundation recognized individuals and organizations bringing remarkable value to the community.

During the awards presentation in Rootstown, Ohio, Rick Kellar, Peg’s Foundation President, stated “Tonight’s recipients are not only our partners, but our family.” He emphasized that the work of these remarkable individuals and organizations is changing lives every day. “It is the power of partnerships advancing the foundation’s mission and vision and creating lasting impact!”

2021 Compass Award winner Pete Earley spent his career dedicated to helping people with serious mental illness and improving the systems that serve them. A former reporter for The Washington Post, he is best-known for his nonfiction book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, one of two finalists for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, and winner of awards from the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Mental Health America. Earley said his work promotes, “fixing a system that can be fixed and realizing that it costs more to jail people or institutionalize them, and that it costs more to let people throw their lives away than it does to help them.”

As a journalist he holds people accountable, elevates our national dialogue to what “should be,” and lifts mental illness out of the shadows, creating a vision on how to best support individuals and families impacted by mental illness. Earley stated, “The biggest thing we have to do for someone who has mental illness, I believe, is give them hope.”

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“I realized my baby boy had lost his mind.” Advocate Jerri Clark Describes Her Journey To Help Her Son & Others

Jerri sat down with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in 2018 to talk about gaps in the mental health care system. Courtesy Jerri Niebaum Clark

(11-17-21) This is part two of Advocate Jerri Niebaum Clark’s story about her struggles to help her son, Calvin, and how his death led to her advocacy.

Becoming A Parent Advocate: Part Two

By Jerri Niebaum Clark

First published in Kansas Alumni Magazine. Used by permission.

I remember a time when happiness and health felt normal. I left Lawrence, Kansas, and my position as an assistant editor for Kansas Alumni in 1995, newly married and five months pregnant. My husband, Matthew Clark, settled into a career with Hewlett-Packard. I became mother to baby Calvin and Michelle, 10 years older than he. I taught yoga and children’s ballet, work that blended well with parenting. We loved our Pacific Northwest home in Vancouver, Washington, where through the years we surfed off the Oregon coast and skied down Mount Hood.

Calvin became a state-champion debater and earned a scholarship to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Midway through his freshman year, he called in a rambling, tearful rant about being abandoned by fellow debaters. The details did not make sense. We brought Calvin home. Well past midnight, on February 16, 2015, I realized my baby boy had lost his mind.

Calvin’s speech was alarmingly disorganized and frantic. He did not sleep and was convinced a bathroom in our house was possessed and should never be entered again. A family doctor prescribed lithium. Calvin was at first relieved to have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, like his paternal grandfather. This explained some of his confusion, so he agreed to take the medication. He got a job at the local farmer’s market selling cookies. He bought a Cookie Monster T-shirt. We were rearranged, but we were a family and happy to be together. There was even a magical day of surfing that spring when we all successfully caught overhead rides.

We came up for air, but the dangerous waves we would try to ride were just setting up. Events in the years to come tossed me around enough to reorder my understanding about what it means to be a parent, a compassionate person and an activist.

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“I saw clearly what was coming – I had no power to prevent any of it.” Advocate Jerri Clark’s Story About Her Son & Her Advocacy

Happier Times. Photo courtesy of Jerri Niebaum Clark

(11-16-21) Jerri Niebaum Clark embodies the famous Margaret Meade quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

My Son’s Journey: Part One

A Mom’s Journey Through Mental Illness, Suicide and Advocacy

By Jerri Niebaum Clark

First published in Kansas Alumni Magazine, University of Kansas.

I studied journalism with no idea that the most important story I would ever tell would be the tragedy of my own family.

My son, Calvin, was a happy baby, a solid student, a successful athlete. He grew into a clever, curious, compassionate person. He also developed a serious mental illness in his teen years that devolved into psychotic episodes. A mental health care system in disarray meant that instead of helpful care, our family met heartbreak.

In disbelief, I watched my son’s world tilt away from a bright future punctuated by academic accolades and toward incarcerations, suicide attempts and hospitalizations in locked wards that didn’t make him better. Along the way, the everyday bad news cycle got personal. I’m not at all surprised that homelessness and suicide rates are rapidly rising or that so many police encounters end tragically. These are preventable social ills, but our service systems are not built to prevent them.

Families like mine strive to keep loved ones from hitting rock bottom, discovering that there really is no bottom and that help doesn’t prevent but instead requires a radical free-fall. I watched my son delivered into society’s underbelly by design. He spent months homeless, met law enforcement again and again, and tried multiple times to die. These traumas are part of a tragic inventory of the requirements for public assistance when someone has a serious mental illness. Calvin was 23 when he died from suicide March 18, 2019.

As I try to reconcile what happened to my son and our family, I have been compelled to dust off my journalism skills to write and holler my way into public view.

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Off Medication: “I Fear He Will Kill Me!” Mother Says About Jailed Son

Fairfax County Photo

(10-25-21) This recent email made me ask two questions. Why wasn’t something done to help this young man before he was arrested? What can be done now to keep him from attacking his mother and further ruining his life? 

Dear Pete,

I find myself in a desperate situation.

My son is 28 with schizoaffective disorder. He did fairly well with his illness for many years while consistently on medication but spiraled downward in the last year and a half due to going off medication. He is currently in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center for breaking a protective order against me.

After four attempts to have him hospitalized (two were successful but too brief), I finally had to get a protective order. Between late April and July he was trying to kill me. He kept trying to break into my house with knives and axes.

He was clearly suffering from voices or delusions telling him he had to do that. He no longer realizes that he is ill.

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Two College Students Took In A Homeless, Delusional Woman & Changed A Million Lives In India

Vandana Gopikumar

(10-15-21) If you ever have wondered if a single person can help change the world meet Dr. Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of The Banyan, who was recently chosen as a Heroine of Health 2021 for her tireless advocacy on behalf of poor women with mental illnesses in India.

She is one of the most impressive leaders I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. Through her non-profit, she has offered hope and help to more than one million women in India and Sri Lanka.

In 2016, Dr. Gopikumar invited me to speak in Chennai, India, at a three-day Conference on Justice and the Rights of Homeless Persons with Mental Health Issues. I described how American jails and prisons have become our nation’s largest de facto public mental facilities and why that is wrong.

I learned much more from her than what I had to offer at the conference. She and her team arranged for me to visit three of The Banyan’s housing programs and speak to the women residents there. These women had been literally thrown away by society. They were homeless, destitute and delusional before they became part of the The Banyan. Most would have died in the streets. When I met them, they were smiling, well-cared for and busy making different types of clothing for sale to support themselves and The Banyan.

The story behind this amazing program is truly inspirational.

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