Neglect and Abuse in North Carolina Prisons!

Levon Wilson,  a resident of Winston Salem, North Carolina, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was arrested on August 31, 2010, on misdemeanor charges and sent to the state’s Central Prison to await trial. Five weeks later, he was dead.

An autopsy showed that Wilson had been transferred from the prison to Wake Med Hospital in Raleigh with “moderately high levels” of lithium in his bloodstream ten days before he died. Lithium is often prescribed to treat manic symptoms common with bipolar disorder. But taking too much lithium is deadly. Patients taking lithium must be monitored with blood tests because too much lithium can impair the kidneys and obstruct bowels. 

The autopsy revealed that Wilson had died from “complications of lithium therapy,” which led to him suffering impaired kidneys and bowel problems. Despite the obvious — that someone in the prison system had screwed up in dispensing lithium — a state doctor ruled that Wilson’s death was the result of  “natural” causes. No one was reprimanded. No one was fired.

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Capitol Hill Symposium Draws Advocates

I took a day from writing yesterday to attend an all-day symposium in Washington D.C. that was entitled LOST: Dollars, People, Hope.  The keynote was given by Tipper Gore, a long time advocate. The thrust of her speech was that we needed to tie mental health to bigger issues that are important to all Americans if we want to stop Congress from cutting federal mental health funding.  Her first example was war.

Gore said that 18 veterans die each day by their own hands, an alarming statistic and an example of why we need a better mental health care system. If we just complain to politicians about mental health care cuts, she said, we probably will be met with deaf ears.  But if we explain that those cuts are going to penalize veterans who are suffering mental health problems because of their service to our country — then Congress will be more likely to authorize funding. 

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A YouTube Attack on SAMHSA

 You might recall that Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry made headlines last week when he couldn’t remember during a presidential candidate debate the third federal agency that he wanted to eliminate if he makes it to Washington D.C..

Quick on the punch, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey has come up with a suggestion: the  Substance Abuse and  Mental Health Administration. The lightening rod psychiatrist  has turned to YouTube to make his pitch.

Why does Dr. Torrey want to shut down SAMHSA?  I suspect that one reason is because  several mental health groups that vehemently oppose Assisted Outpatient Treatment  laws, such as Kendra’s Law in New York,  are funded by SAMHSA grants and programs.  Meanwhile, Dr. Torrey’s group, the Treatment Advocacy Center, doesn’t accept federal funds.

What’s your view on Dr. Torrey’s campaign to eliminate SAMHSA? Does SAMHSA fund programs in your community that are helpful to persons with mental illnesses? I’d love to hear from the grassroots on this issue.


Hollywood Buys WITSEC for TV Drama



My good friend, Gerald Shur, and I have received lots of inquires from Hollywood about  our nonfiction book, WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program since it was published ten years ago. For those of you who have not read it, Gerald is the Justice Department lawyer who came up with the idea of creating a government program that would protect mobsters and give them new identities in return for their testimony against their Mafia Godfathers.

 By the time Gerald retired in 1995, he had overseen the handling of such famous gangsters as Joseph Valachi, “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno and “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.  The witness protection program that he created helped shatter the mob’s code of silence.

Interested screenwriters and producers would call us and ask about WITSEC. But for a variety of reasons, we never sold the dramatic rights — until now.  The trade magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, announced the sale.

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Poor Taste in Brooklyn

Unfortunately, Halloween spurs costumes and depictions of scary events that misalign and stigmatize persons struggling with mental disorders. Based on the number of Hollywood horror movies that promote this prejudice, no one should be surprised. Still, it is frustrating. And hurtful.

ABC’s smash hit, Dancing With The Stars, featured a dance routine last night where three of its male participants appeared in straight jackets, including one dancer in zombie makeup, escaping from behind bars. Thankfully there was no mention of the “insane.”

Perhaps the most blatant display this year of insensitivity appeared on the webpage,  A Brooklyn Limestone in Progress, whose owners are renovating a residence and charting their progress on the Internet.  Under the headline: Halloween Decor Reveal: Welcome to the Asylum, the owners pushed evey hurtful stereotype possible, including an especially offensive invitation to visit their house.

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Public Value or Cheap Sensationalism?

There was a time in my life when I might have felt differently about a court battle that is currently being waged in Wisconsin. As a newspaper reporter, I talked alot about “the public’s right to know.”

But now that I am the father of a son with a mental disorder — well, I’m a bit more skeptical.

Bryan Stanley murdered a custodian, a lay minister and a priest at the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Onalaska, Wisconsin in February 1985.  At the time, he was twenty-nine years old and mentally ill. He believed he was a prophet sent by God to cleanse the church after a priest allowed girls to read Scriptures during Mass.

Found not guilty —“by reason of mental disease” — Stanley was sent to the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison in October 1985.  Some fifteen years later in March 2009, doctors at the institute decided Stanley could be safely discharged. After thoroughly reviewing his case, La Crosse County Circuit Judge Ramona Gonzalez agreed. She approved his release but ordered specific monitoring restrictions.

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