Schizophrenia In The Time Of Covid-19: We Are All Isolated Now

Illustration Courtesy of TapIn to East Orange 

(8-19-20) A guess blog from one of my favorite advocates and a fellow author.

Millions of Stick Houses

by Mimi Feldman, author of He Came In With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness

If we learn nothing else from this pandemic, we better learn to talk about mental health.

Yesterday I was on the phone with a customer service representative at Bank of America. The account I keep for my son, Nick, had received a $40 overdraft charge because his SSI payment hadn’t auto deposited in time for his rent check. Because of the pandemic. Because he is on disability. Because he couldn’t possibly hold a job. Because he has schizophrenia. Because.

The pandemic has hurled all of into an isolated, shut-away world not dissimilar to my son’s. The other day I asked my daughter, “So, who is the example of the perfect follower of social distancing rules who hasn’t changed his life one bit?” She didn’t miss a beat, “Nick!” And we both chuckled. Nick’s particular condition includes a sprinkling of OCD. “I doubt he’s touched a doorknob in ten years!” she exclaimed, and then we laughed. This may sound terrible to you, but believe me, gallows humor is all you’ve got sometimes with serious mental illness.

I was talking to a therapist recently who told me that schizophrenia is the black sheep of mental illness. I already knew that. It isn’t understandable like bipolar. It isn’t treatable like depression. It isn’t recognizable like anxiety. In a world of strangeness, it is the strangest of all. It renders its sufferers sick by attacking the very organ that would allow them to understand and seek treatment: the mind. It is a thought disorder. Think about that (ha. yes, think) and imagine someone you love becoming another person. Receding and transforming and returning in an unrecognizable form. There is a particular irony to this disease, it has a cruel joke quality.

I am very open about the situation. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t have the energy for the tap dancing that bowing to stigma requires. This wasn’t a bold or noble move on my part. It was the need for efficiency. The stress and maintenance of this circus requires everything I’ve got. Superfluous activity and emotions are discarded to make room for problem solving.

During this awful time of Covid-19, I look at my son and am struck once again by the paradox of schizophrenia. When the whole world is reeling from the drastic change in our reality, he wanders calmly through it all, un-phased. It’s not that he doesn’t understand, he just lives in his own immediate world. As we all are right now. And it is driving us crazy. Ah, the irony.

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Please Join Friday’s Web Discussion About Reforming Civil Commitment Laws

“If somebody had a heart attack, we wouldn’t wait until 99 percent of their heart was dead — we would get them care at the beginning of the problem, not at the end of the problem.” –  Leslie Carpenter. 

(8-17-20) Few subjects are as controversial in mental health as involuntary civil commitment.

When should society intervene?

This Friday – August 21- at 2 p.m. EST, I will be discussing civil commitment laws with Leslie Carpenter, a leading mental health advocate who was instrumental in reforming Iowa’s civil commitment criteria. We’ll be joined during the interactive webcast by co-hosts  Janet Hays, director of Healing Minds NOLA, and Eric Smith, a national advocate with a serious mental illness.

You are invited to participate in the discussion electronically through two venues: Healing Minds NOLA or Eventbrite. There is no charge to participate.

If you have read my book, you are aware of what happened when I rushed my son, Kevin, to a local Fairfax, Va., hospital because he was delusional. Moments before, Kevin had asked me what I would do if someone I loved committed suicide and he’d told me that he was receiving secret messages through bumper stickers. After waiting four hours in a room away from everyone else, Kevin announced that there was nothing wrong with him and started to leave. I literally ran into the hallway and grabbed a doctor.

The doctor explained there was nothing he could do because Virginia’s civil commitment law required an individual to pose an “imminent danger.” Since we had been waiting peacefully for four hours, there was no immediate threat.

Kevin literally ran out of the hospital and forty-eight hours later was arrested after he broke into a stranger’s unoccupied house to take a bubble bath.

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7 Steps To Reduce Jailing Of Americans With Mental Illnesses That Your Community Should Adopt

Courtesy Pixabay

(8-14-20) Partner for Mental Health, an affiliate of Mental Health America, has developed a 7 step program to reduce interactions between Americans with mental illnesses and the police and to reduce inappropriate incarceration. The group is urging city officials in Charlottesville, Virginia, to accept what it calls “a holistic reform” of the local criminal justice system.

These seven steps should be adopted by other communities.

“Policing does not exist as an independent entity in any community and complex health and social issues, such as mental illness, are often woven into the circumstances of a police response,”  Anna Mendez, Partner for Mental Health Executive Director, wrote in an email.  “In these cases, the police force’s ability to respond appropriately to members of the community with mental illness is directly related to the community’s commitment to support its members living with mental health challenges.” Mendez added that it was “not reasonable to expect a police officer to respond appropriately to a person with mental illness” when there are no community support services.


Here are the seven steps that Partner for Mental Health asking Charlottesville City officials to adopt:

  1. Workgroup. Establish a workgroup, as proposed by Myra Anderson, leader of Brave Souls on Fire, charged with “Reimagining Mental Health Crises Without Police Intervention” to guide the creation and implementation of a continuum of interventions to prevent the criminalization of mental illness in Charlottesville.
  2. Non-police Urgent Response System. Establish a non-police urgent response system to resolve calls for service that are behavioral health related and non-violent with the express goal of helping all parties involved avoid both arrest and hospitalization.

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Prosecutor Who Sent Autistic Black Driver To Prison For Non-Fatal Car Crash Fights Back Against Critics

(A response to Prosecutor Stolle’s letter from Matthew’s mother has been added at the end of this blog.)

8-13-20) The prosecutor who sent Matthew Rushin to prison for causing a three-car, non-fatal accident is fighting back against complaints by Rushin’s parents and supporters that the young autistic black man was treated unfairly.

Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney Colin D. Stolle has told Virginia Governor Ralph Northam that pleas in social media and news accounts by Rushin’s supporters for a pardon are “so far removed from what actually took place” that the governor should ignore them.

“Numerous social media posts, and the pardon request itself, are filled with misinformation and inaccurate facts in an effort to gain some sort of clemency for Mr. Rushin,” Stolle stated in a letter dated July 9th, that was forwarded to me yesterday. He wrote his letter after more than a hundred Rushin’s supporters marched in protest of his imprisonment and Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas publicized his plight.

On Monday, I posted a blog about Rushin and email interview with his parents under the headline “Autistic Black Man Sentenced To 50 Years in Prison For Non-Fatal Accident: Parents Outraged, Asking Va. Gov. To Pardon Him.”  It explained that Rushin had been sentenced to 50 years in prison, with all but ten years suspended if he didn’t get into trouble after he’d served his time, because a vehicle that he was driving crashed head-on into oncoming traffic on January 4, 2019, injuring four, two seriously. The police and prosecutor said Rushin was trying to kill himself and intentionally caused the crash, which is why he was initially charged with attempted murder and received an unusually long prison term for a non-fatal collision. (The state’s guidelines called for a maximum of 6 years and four months, but the sentencing judge ignored that recommendation and imposed the 50 year sentence.)

Demetrius and Lavern Rushin and supporters insist Rushin lost control of his car, say he wasn’t trying to end his life, and argue that the police officers who responded to the accident pressured him into making incriminating statements. His parents also have said that white defendants charged in more serious car accidents in Virginia Beach have been treated less harshly than their son.

Rushin was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome as a child and later experienced a traumatic brain injury that made him easy to manipulate, his parents noted.

In addition to his letter to Northam, Prosecutor Stolle delivered an internal affairs summary to the governor prepared by interim Virginia Beach Police Chief Anthony Zucaro, which found no fault by his officers or the prosecution.

At the heart of the dispute is whether Matthew Rushin was attempting to end his own life.

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Norman Carlson: A Leader in Modern Day Corrections and A Man I Greatly Admired Has Died

(8-11-20) I am sad to report that Norman Carlson, who served as director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) from 1970 to 1987, died Sunday at the Mayo Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Yesterday would have been his 87th birthday, his daughter, Cindy Gustafson, told me in an email. He died from aggressive lymphoma.

I first met and came to greatly admire Mr. Carlson in the mid-1980s while working as a reporter for The Washington Post and later when I spent time interviewing him for several days at his former home in Minnesota about his career for my bestselling book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.

He was regarded as one of the best federal managers in Washington and a leader in modern day corrections. He was also a remarkable man.

In a biography of Mr. Carlson, entitled A Model of Correctional Leadership: The Career of Norman A. Carlson, author Clemens Bartollas noted that he’d interviewed 80 individuals who knew Mr. Carlson well. The interviewees “in one way or the other, reported the same message – it was a honor to work for and with this individual: he was a remarkable human being, an amazing leader, and a great man,” Bartollas wrote.

Mr. Carlson looked exactly like what one would expect of a prison warden. Tall with broad shoulders, he had close cropped hair and no nonsense demeanor. But the harsh stereotypes that usually accompany that image belied a basic goodness in him. I remember during our first meeting when he explained to me that it was not the BOP’s job to punish inmates. Punishment was removal from society as ordered by a judge and courts. A correctional officer was responsible for keeping an inmate safe, locked up, and given what he/she was due.

Before Carlson took charge as director, the federal prison system was a series of fiefdoms each operated by an all powerful warden who tended to do whatever he wanted and much of that was not good. Much like McDonalds changed fast food by standardizing menus, quality and service, Carlson unified the bureau and introduced and enforced high standards of employee conduct and services.

As part of his drive for professionalism, he encouraged his employees to see themselves as “correctional officers” not guards. Prison assistant wardens were expected to wear suits and ties, and told to make themselves available by standing “mainline.” Each day during the noon meal, all a prison’s senior officials were required to stand in the dining hall while inmates ate. This provided inmates an opportunity to talk to staff members without being accused of being a snitch. In the old days, convicts always went in pairs to speak to a prison official. This enabled them to vouch for each other when they returned to the cell house, thus assuring other inmates that neither had snitched. Now because convicts could walk up to a prison official in the dining hall and talk in full sight of everyone, there was no need for a witness. If others suspected an inmate of snitching, they could walk up beside him and overhear what he was saying to staff. There was another more subtle reason for standing mainline. It was a reminder that despite the fact that the staff was vastly outnumbered and completely unarmed, they were in charge.

Shortly after being named director, Carlson disciplined officers who’d beaten an inmate, sending a clear message that he had zero tolerance for prisoner abuse.

Another managerial hallmark of his tenure was cleanliness and order. Mr. Carlson viewed a dirty prison as a sign of poor management, consequently floors were highly polished and walls kept painted. One legendary story described how a warden in the Northeast had his staff sprinkle flour on freshly fallen snow before the director’s visit because some of the snow had turned muddy and brown. The warden in Leavenworth, when I spent a year there, cleared everything – including his phone – off the top of his desk before leaving each night.

Mr. Carlson regularly visited prisons, often with his family, and insisted on eating with prisoners, to show that the food was good enough for his own family.

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Autistic Black Man Sentenced To 50 Years In Prison For Non-Fatal Accident: Parents Outraged, Asking Va. Gov. To Pardon Him

Matthew Rushin


As long as Matthew is behind bars, we are behind bars.  There is not a moment during the day that I don’t think about Matthew.. I live, eat, sleep thinking and worrying about Matthew Rushin.  …When I’m eating, I think, “what is Matthew eating.”  When I lay on my comfortable bed, I wonder what Matthew is sleeping on.  I worry about what medication they are giving him or will give him.  I don’t want him to be tranquilized, then have someone attack him while he is so vulnerable.  He’s been attacked twice.  I asked him what he did when he was attacked, and he told me he just blocked the blows; he didn’t fight back. – Lavern Rushin.

The parents of a young black man, who was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome as a child and later experienced a traumatic brain injury, are asking Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to pardon their son and free him from prison after he received a 50 year prison term because of a three car, non-fatal accident. All but ten years were suspended conditional on his continued good behavior after the ten years are served.

It is usual for a car accident to draw such a lengthy prison term, but police and prosecutors claimed that Matthew Rushin, age 21, was attempting to kill himself when his car crossed a median in Virginia Beach and collided head-on with another vehicle January 4, 2019, seriously injuring its driver and causing that car to strike another one.

Matthew’s parents, Demetrius and Lavern Rushin, insist their son was not trying to end his life. He simply lost control of his car. They have accused the police of ignoring their department’s guidelines that describe how individuals with mental illnesses should be questioned. They also have accused prosecutors and the sentencing judge of treating their son, because he is black, much more harshly from white defendants involved in much worse traffic fatalities in their jurisdictions.

More than 166,000 supporters have signed a petition urging Matthew’s release. More than a hundred supporters marched in protest of his imprisonment and Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas has publicized his plight. Terra Vance has written extensively about the case on the Autism website NeuroClastic, including video of the police interrogation of Matthews.

What evidence is there that Matthew was attempting suicide?

In an email, Matthew’s parents wrote that after Matthew freed himself from the wreckage of his car, he was physically detained by two witnesses. The driver of one of the cars hit in the accident angrily yelled, “Are you fucking trying to kill yourself? Are you trying to kill us?” One of the police officers said he overheard Matthew say in response, “I was trying to killing myself.”

“Repeating words and phrases are how autistic people process language, especially when under stress,” his parents note.

When the police arrived at the accident, Matthew’s actions and statements were recorded on police body cams – more than 12 hours worth. A total of 17 officers came to the accident. Three of them were not wearing body cams. Those three claimed, without evidence, that they overheard Matthew say that he was trying to kill himself. This alleged statement was reportedly overheard minutes after Matthew climbed out of a vehicle where he’d just had a high speed collision – during which he had lost consciousness.  During the 5 1/2 hours when he was interrogated by police he never wavered that this was not an attempt to kill himself.

Matthew’s father arrived at the accident to help his son, he was stopped and barred by police from speaking to Matthew.

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