Judge Steven Leifman: My Choice For Most Important Advocate During 2020

The Definition of Insanity Film Documents The Success Of Judge Leifman’s Reforms In Miami Dade

(12-7-20) Miami Dade Judge Steven Leifman is my choice for the most impactful player in mental health during 2020.

For a decade, Judge Leifman has worked tirelessly to reform how our criminal justice system interacts with individuals with mental illnesses. He has traveled across the nation educating judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys about the so-called Miami Model that has become the gold standard in our nation for reducing violence, unnecessary arrests, and inappropriate incarceration. The model encourages recovery, reduces stigma, and gives individuals hope.

Judge Leifman’s approach has a proven and impressive track record.

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We’ve Lost Hope: Emails From Frustrated Parents Seeking Advice

(From My Files Friday) I first posted this plea from desperate parents eight years ago. Sadly, I continue to get similar emails today. Although I wrote this years ago, I feel much of it remains relevant. What suggestions would you offer to parents?

We’ve Lost Hope: A Plea from Parents Who Are Losing Hope

I am not a trained therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. I’m just another parent. But each week, I receive emails from other parents seeking help. I answer emails when possible based on what I have learned as a father, not a professional. This is not medical advice. What follows is an email that is representative.

Dear Pete,

We have tried to get our son professional help. I think he has bipolar disorder, although he possibly could have schizophrenia. We know he has an alcohol addiction. He has not cooperated with hardly anything, and we’ve been unable to get him to go to our local mental health center, although officials there said he is eligible for treatment.

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Giving Tuesday: NAMI, This Is My Brave, and Other Worthwhile Non-Profits I’ve Supported

Local attorney Peter Greenspun at last year’s NAMI Walks with firm attorneys, Liza Greenspun Yang, and Anastasia T. Kranias

(12-1-20) Giving Tuesday is here and, if you are able, today is a great opportunity to contribute to worthwhile non-profits.

I’m thrilled that locally, Fairfax, Va. Attorney Peter Greenspun, whose firm frequently defends clients with mental illnesses, is matching up to $15,000 in donations to the Northern Virginia Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The top donor will receive a one-week vacation at an Unlimited Vacation Club all-inclusive resort property, donated by Peter and Katherine Greenspun. Flights not included. Contact Peter Greenspun for details. 

In addition to NAMI, there are many other important and worthwhile non-profit organizations created to help individuals with mental illnesses. (Donate to NAMI national here.)

Here are three others that I have supported.

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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.

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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.

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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.