CRAZY: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness
by Pete Earley
c.2006 G.P. Putman and Sons
READ THIS BOOK! IT IS HORRIFYING AND RINGS ALL TOO TRUE!
see also www.peteearley.com
This is a transcript of a phone conversation between myself and Mr. Earley as I prepare a broadcast on the problems in safely and effectively treating those with mental illness. Mike is Mr. Earley's son. He was diagonsed five years ago-at 22- with bi polar disorder.
PE: Mike is my son, when he was in college he developed a mental illness, bi polar disorder. I rushed him from New York where he was attending school to Virginia, where I lived, and during that four hour trip, it was unbelievable. His moods would shift. At one moment he'd be laughing, the next minute he'd be sobbing. It was very difficult to watch. And then he said to me, Dad how would you feel if someone you loved killed himself. So of course I rushed him to an Emergency Room to get him some help. And the intake nurse rolled her eyes when he told her that he believed pills were poison, and that he was God's messenger. We waited for four hours, and then a doctor came in and I'll never forget, he came in with his hands raised, as if he were surrendering, and he said, Look I'm sorry, I'm not going to be able to help your son. And I said, You haven't even examined him! He said, it doesn't matter, the nurse told me your son believes that pills are poison, he doesn't seem to me to be in any iminent danger, either to himself or others, and under Virginia law he has either to be hurting himself or hurt someone else, in order for me to forcibly treat him. So take him home, and if he tries to kill himself or kill you, then bring him back and we'll try to do something.
C: He actually said that to you, we can help him if he tries to kill himself or you?
PE: That's right....I took him home and for the next forty eight hours I watched him sink into this mental abyss. At one point he had tin foil wrapped around his head and he was watching TV because he thought the CIA was trying to penetrate his
thoughts through the airwaves. He slipped out of the house. He broke into a neighbor's house, luckily they weren't home. He went in there to take a bath, and he did quite a bit of damage in the house, and then the police came. It took five of them to drag him out of there, and they took him to a mental health center. And I thought, Good! Now he'll get some help. When I got to the Center the police said to me No, he's still not considered a danger to himself or others, so unless you go in there and tell people he threatened to kill you, we'll take him to jail and you don't want that.
So I went in and I lied. I said, My son has threatened to kill me. That got him in the hospital...then I was told no, he STILL didn't seem to be a danger, so he would be released unless he became violent. Then the police called to tell me he'd been charged with two felonies. I was so frustrated because here the law had kept me from getting him help, and now the law wanted to punish him for a crime he committed when he was obviously ill.
CP: In your book you mention "the crimilaztion of the mentally ill"
PE: That's exactly right. That's what's going on right now. Jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums. 700,000 people with severe mental illness go through the justice system each year. The largest mental facilty in the United States is not a hospital, but the Los Angeles County jail.
We are turning those places into our new asylums. That's where people end up when they need help with their mental illness, and that's not right.
CP: You book, CRAZY focuses on your son Mike and also the mental health system and lack of any safety net for the mentally ill
PE: I wanted to put a human face on this story, so with Mike's cooperation I decided to tell his story. But I interwove it with the bigger story. I went to Miami where 9% of the population has mental illness, and I wanted to see how that community deals with persons with mental illnesses. And what I found out is rather typical. They either end up in jail, they end up eating out of garbage cans in the streets, OR some with chronic diseases end up in assisted living facilites. Boarding homes that the state pays for. There are 4500 people in Miami who live in 647 of these homes, 400 of them can't even pass minimun safety standards. They're slums.
In Washington there was a recent expose telling how many patients in facilities like these were murdered, actually murdered by caregivers, they were starved to death, they were abused. A Milwaulkee newspaper just did a series on the mentally ill and how people were being mistreated there. So its grim all the way around. There's a tremendous lack of services in communities and some of the laws in place are throwing up roadblocks instead of helping us get people help.
CP: We can help you if you kill somebody, but if you don't kill somebody we can't help you.
CP: A lot of people do well on medications, but some seem not to do well; it's also an issue of getting people to take their medicaitons
PE: That's right. You know it takes more than just sticking a pill in someone's mouth. A lot of these mental illnesses are biological problems, they are chemical imbalances which affect how nerve cells send and receive messages. So medicaton can help, it is effective in about 80% of severe mental illness, the trick is 1. getting the right medicaitons and getting people to take it.
My son was on probation for two years, took his medication every day, did a great job
with it, six months later he stopped. Two weeks ago he was forcibly hospitalized. This breaks your heart, but it seems to be part of the cycle you go through.
CP: Often there are devastating side affects to medications, even if they keep you relatively safe...
PE: The first medication my son was on made him gain forty pounds, made him lethargic...he looked like a zombie. None of us were happy with that. A lot of folks with mental illness struggle to find the right balance.
CP: What is Mike's life going to be as far as you can tell? How old was he when you took that four hour ride?
PE: 22 years old. He's now 27.
CP: Did you have any hint of this?
PE: One year before he had had some problems, some bizzare behavior, and we sent him to a psychiatrist who said he might have bi polar disorder. We were all in denial. It was such a devastating diagnosis. He would stay up for five days and we said, Oh well, its stress, and it's not going to come back. And it does come back.
The sad thing about mental illness is that it's a lifetime sentence. You can be treated, but for a severe illness like bi polar disorder or schizophrenia, those are awfully tough to cure. That's what we're living with now. It's really tough. You want to say to somebody who is now 27 years old, well its up to you, your fate's in your hands, take your medications and you'll be fine. But sometimes medications don't work. It's like asking someone with 2 broken legs to run a marathon.
If you have a disease, when does the diesease kick in, and what do you blame on someone being irresponsible. It's tough call.
CP: What has to change so that Mike and everybody else can have a better quality of life, and not be blamed for something in their brains they can't control?
PE: That's the key point. We have to stop making persons with mental illness into criminals. My son now faces a double stigma, both being mentally ill and now having a criminal record. Jails and prisons can't be part of the care process. We have to provide better community sevices, and we must get rid of a lot of the stigma. We have to realize that people who have a mental illness are sick. If your heart gets sick, your brain can get sick. We don't like to do that. We want to blame people for their mental illness. It's not something they did or a weakness in character. If we don't do this we realize it could happen to us, and that's scary.
CP: Would you describe Milke's life now at 27 as 2 steps forward 3 steps back?
PE: I was very optimistc. He was on 2 years of probation. He went to work, had a job. No one would have guessed he had a mental illness. He stopped taking his medication. I can't explain why. Then you watched him decompensate, and then 2 weeks ago he had to be forcibly hospitalized, its a reminder that this is what our life is going to be like, until he either reaches a point where he stays on the medicaiton or he gets worse. Each time you have one of these breakdowns, you do know that it's harder to come back from them.
June 5, 2006