Joining Two Fellow Authors To Discuss De-Criminalization Of Mental Illnesses; Judge Leifman Also Speaking At Free Virtual Summit

(11-23-20) I’m excited to be participating in an upcoming two-day summit that will examine how we can reduce the inappropriate incarceration of individuals with mental illnesses in our jails and prisons. A few seats are still open for the free two-day events on December 14-16.

I’ll be joined by Dr. Christine Montross, author of Waiting for An Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration and Alisa Roth, author of Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness on Dec. 14th at noon on a panel discussing the criminal justice system. Our discussion will be moderated by Norman Ornstein, a nationally known political scientist who lost his son, Matthew, to mental illness. A limited number of copies of our books, including, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, were being mailed free of charge to attendees. I’m not sure if that is still being done but hope so. Attendees can ask all four of us questions via the Internet after the panel discussion.

Before our panel discussion, Altha Stewart, M.D., immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association, will give a keynote address at 11 a.m. On Tuesday, Dec. 16th, Rebecca Messing Haigler, from Verily Life Sciences, will give the second day keynote followed by a panel discussion entitled What Does Mental Health Decriminalization Mean, featuring Judge Steve Leifman, who has reformed the criminal justice system’s approach to mental illness in Miami-Dade County; Debbie Plotnick, with Mental Health America; and Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights. That afternoon, Garen Staglin, chairman of One Mind, will present PechaKucha presentations – a storytelling format where a presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds of commentary each (6 minutes and 40 seconds total.)

The summit is the brainchild of William H. Carson, M.D., chair of the Sozosei Foundation, the charitable foundation created by Otsuka Pharmaceutical, whose neurosciences drugs include the atypical antipsychotic medications Abilify and Rexulti, the latter in partnership with Lundbeck. Both are approved to treat schizophrenia and as an add-on for major depressive disorder; Abilify is also approved for use in bipolar disorder.

I am not being paid to participate. I enthusiastically agreed after I was told by Melissa Beck, Sozosei Foundation’s executive director, that the Summit’s goal is to collaborate, create, and explore pathways to decriminalize mental illness.

Click to continue…

For The Murder Victims In The Movie & Book “Just Mercy,” Justice Remains Denied. Who Killed These Girls?

Photo of Ronda Morrison, young teen whose murderer remains free.

This is not about mental health. (11-20-20) Just Mercy continues to prompt discussions about criminal justice reform. But what’s missing from the book and movie is that the killers of Ronda Morrison and Vicki Lynn Pittman have never been brought to justice. I got to know both of these girls’ families while researching my 1995 book, Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town, about the wrongful conviction of  Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian  and while justice was achieved with McMillian’s release, it still is being denied to the victims of these two murders. Those families deserve better.

From My Files Friday. First published 1-20-20:

I Watched The Actual Just Mercy Story Unfold – At Bryan Stevenson’s Invitation   

“I know he’s innocent,” Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and real life star behind the movie by the same name, assured me when we first talked in 1991.

This was before Stevenson was famous – when he was in the midst of trying to prove that Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, an African American death row inmate in Alabama was innocent of murdering a white teenager in Monroeville, the town that Harper Lee used as her inspiration for the classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.

My good friend, Walt Harrington, had urged me to call Stevenson after I mentioned my interest in writing a book about the death penalty. Harrington was among the first journalists to “discover” Stevenson, years before he began receiving international attention (appearing on Oprah and Ellen) for his tireless efforts to save children and adults sentenced to death. [Read Harrington’s story about Stevenson here.]

I warned Stevenson that if I investigated Johnny D.’s case and felt he was guilty, I’d write that. Without hesitation, Stevenson invited me to Alabama.

During the next three years, I interviewed eye-witnesses, followed Stevenson’s legal fight and did my best to discover the truth about who had murdered Ronda Morrison, a white teen found dead in a main street laundry on a busy Saturday morning.

My account, published in 1995, won a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award  and an Edgar for Best Fact Crime Book. 

So let me share my thoughts about Just Mercy, the movie, and additional information you might find interesting after watching it.

Click to continue…

A Proud Father: My Son – An Artist, Musician, & Adult Living Well With A Serious Mental Illness

“Everything is Imaginary” Animation by EscapeAnimation. Mixed and Mastered by Tynz for District Entertainment. Voices: Earleybird and Maria. Copyright EarleyBird.

(11-16-20) I post blogs about individuals who can’t get help for a mental illness and, too often, end up in jail, homeless or dead. I publicize those blogs to expose faults in mental health care so we can work toward correcting them.

A reader recently asked me to write a blog about recovery. Another asked about my son, Kevin, whose story is told in my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.What’s happened to him?” 

There was a time when Kevin felt hopeless. All of his friends were moving on with their lives – starting careers, getting married, having children. He’d been arrested, twice shot with a taser, and repeatedly hospitalized. During his last hospitalization, Kevin acknowledged that he had an illness and, thankfully, received the wrap around community services that he needed to handle the symptoms of his bipolar disorder.

My son has a big and loving heart. A key part of his recovery was becoming a peer specialist who helps others with challenges that they may face because of their illnesses. Helping others gave him a purpose in his life.

Today, he works full time as a peer. He will soon finish his final class at Virginia Commonwealth University and be awarded a Master’s Degree in social work.

A graduate of the Pratt Institute, Kevin always has expressed himself through his artwork and music. This week, he released an album entitled “Everything is Imaginary”  that includes a song that he wrote called INSOMNIA.  (Watch short video above.)

The ticking of a clock. Subtle strings and a haunting chorus. The tinkling of a piano. This is a hip-hop version of the classic American standards of the “torch song” genre, such as “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” by Frank Sinatra or “Solitude” by Billie Holiday. Earleybird and Maria paint a picture of trying to cope during the witching hours, when one is restless, can’t sleep and is preoccupied by heartbreak in the late moments of tranquility before the dawn is set to begin.

During the nearly two decades that I have traveled our country speaking about the need for reforms, I have heard many hopeful stories.

I recall the man diagnosed with schizophrenia who was homeless for twenty years. One day, he sought help and he now lives in a supportive housing unit with his cat.

I’ve also heard too many stories about those who have not done well and have died alone on our streets or have become entrapped in jails and prisons. Mental Illnesses are cruel illnesses and the sad reality is that, much like cancer, not everyone will recover.

But we are poor judges of who will and not. We can’t even agree on how “recover” should be defined. This is why we must have hope and strive for a system capable of offering help to everyone, whether that be with housing, jobs, transportation, legal defense, medical costs, peer support, clubhouses, or simply friendship.

I am proud of my son and all that he has overcome on our journey. I hope his recovery story will inspire others as much as it has and does inspired me.

For more information visit Kevin Earley website.

We Must Treat Our Veterans Better In Treating Physical And Mental Health: A Mother Describes How The VA Failed Her Son

(11-11-20) My uncle died overseas during World War Two, my father, grandfathers and another uncle were all veterans. I lost a high school classmate in Vietnam. Our veterans deserve our thanks. They also deserve decent physical and mental health care and when that doesn’t happen, we need to expose it. This letter, which I first published last year, sadly shows that all too often we fail to keep our promises to the men and woman who answered our nation’s call.

Dear Pete,

I want to tell you about my son and how the Veterans Administration failed to treat him, contributed to him having a mental breakdown, and then refused to help him.

As you know, as many as twenty veterans a day choose to end their own lives. In our son’s case, we believe the VA’s failure to help our son caused him to attempt “suicide by cop” with tragic results.

My son was the third of five children. He grew up in a happy home, was intelligent and friendly, independent, and enjoyed finding the exception to the rule. He worked construction jobs while a teen, which provided a good income and enabled him to buy a car before his older siblings.

At 17, he joined the National Guard and tested in the 90% range. They wanted him to go into military intelligence, but he chose to be a regular soldier. His unit was sent to Iraq. He later volunteered to go to Afghanistan with another unit.

While deployed, he was involved in multiple violent conflicts. Our son was always able to remain calm, and he saved lives due to his training and ability to provide medical first aid. He was awarded an ARCOM – an Army Commendation Medal for heroism.

We were proud of him and his service to our nation.

Click to continue…

Who Will Be Named New Assistant Secretary? Will SAMHSA Continue Focusing On Serious Mental Illnesses?

Death of D. J. Jaffe Leaves A Hole For Those Pushing A Serious Mental Illness Agenda

(11-09-20)  What direction will the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) take after a new assistant secretary is appointed?

The Biden transition team already is in the process of compiling a list of potential candidates to replace Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, Secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use.

Under her leadership, serious mental illness (SMI) has been a priority at SAMHSA following a predecessor who ignored it for years.

President Trump nominated Dr. McCance-Katz in May 2017 but she didn’t take office until late that fall after Senate confirmation.  The Biden team intends to move much quicker in naming her replacement, I’ve been told, hoping to have a new assistant secretary in place by April.

Some hoped Dr. McCance-Katz would be asked to continue, but her comments during a recent Health and Human Services podcast doomed her. She was accused of promoting Trump’s political agenda rather than backing science, and she drew additional criticism after she accused the media of being dishonest about reporting COVID. Shortly before the election, she moved to clarify her remarks in an interview with MedPage Today but the political damage already had been done.

In a 2018 year-end blog, I named her the most influential player in mental health for that year. Although I didn’t initially back her for the job (I’d recommended Miami Dade Judge Steven Leifman), Dr. McCance-Katz graciously appointed me to the federal panel that advises Congress about mental health matters (ISMICC) and I was invited to tell my family’s story to HHS Sec. Alex Azar so he could hear first-hand about barriers that parents face trying to get meaningful help for a loved one.

Dr. McCance-Katz immediately set out to change SAMHSA’s course.

The agency didn’t employ a single psychiatrist at one point before Dr. McCance-Katz took charge. It issued a three-year plan that never mentioned bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Dr. McCance-Katz was so disgusted by what she observed when she worked as SAMHSA’s first chief medical officer that, upon resigning, she published a 2016 article in Psychiatric Times that accused her former employer of harboring “a perceptible hostility toward psychiatric medicine” and questioning “whether mental disorders even exist- for example, is psychosis just a “different way of thinking for some experiencing stress?”

Click to continue…

Courageous Fairfax Police Chief To Retire. Strong Advocate For Individuals With Mental Illnesses, Including His Own Officers

Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., retiring. WTOP photo

Chief Roessler Was Among First To Openly Discuss Police Suicides. Also Courageously Condemned Officer Who Used Taser Unprovoked On Delusional Man In Crisis

(11-6-20) Fairfax County (VA) is losing a strong and unwavering advocate for individuals with mental illnesses.

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. announced this week that he will retire in February after eight years as chief, bringing a close to a nearly 30 years career in law enforcement.

In addition to pushing for Crisis Intervention Team training inside his 1,402 member department, Chief Roessler demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that individuals with mental illnesses be treated decently when he publicly condemned the actions of one of his own officers in June.

Chief Roessler said he was “disgusted” after an officer marched up to an adult male with a history of mental illness and shot him with a taser without provocation before pinning him to the ground. The man had been speaking nonsense and walking in circles in the street. The officer was criminally charged with assault.

Shamefully, but predictably, the Fairfax Fraternal Order of Police expressed outrage and demanded Chief Roessler resign rather than recognizing that one of their own could have better handled the call. That grumbling continues today.

The incident attracted national attention, in part, because the officer was white and the victim was black. In Fairfax County, use of force by police disproportionately affects Black people: 2019 data show that Black residents make up less than 10% of the county’s population, but are involved in 45.6% of police use-of-force incidents.

Chief Roessler’s courage in publicly condemning his officer’s use of force reflected the chief’s long-held concern about how individuals with mental illnesses are viewed and treated. That concern applied to those within police ranks as well as the citizens the police had sworn to protect. Under his direction, the police department produced a video called “Consequences of the Badge” that featured interviews with Fairfax County officers who either had contemplated suicide or had lost a fellow officer or loved one because of a suicide. Chief Roessler was among the first to break the code of silence about police suicides by speaking nationally about suicide by officers. In 2019, 228 American police officers died by suicide. A previous study in 2017, found more died from suicide than were killed in the line of duty.

Click to continue…