I just listened to a story on This American Life about Alan Pean, a young African-American man who experienced a severe psychiatric breakdown while living in Houston, Texas. Alan was a college student who had previously survived a couple of episodes of manic depressive disorder. Alan came from a high achieving family with doctors including his father.
Alan found that his mind was overpowered by a delusion that caused him to jump off the balcony of his third story apartment, make his way to his car and crash through the gates. He drove toward St. Joseph Hospital, a major medical facility in downtown Houston. He crashed and totaled his car into the hospital and somehow told the emergency room staff he was having a manic episode. But he was never treated for his mental disorder. His father who is of Haitian descent arrived a few hours later and also told the staff that his son was having mental problems and yet Alan was still not evaluated by a psychiatrist.
His father left to try to arrange getting Alan help for his mental illness and shortly afterwards the staff had trouble with Alan and called for security. This turned out to be Houston police with guns who were not trained in dealing with psychiatric patients. Alan was tasered, then shot and almost killed and later charged with assault. Although the charges were later dropped there is a disturbing pattern of mental patients being shot or tasered by police who have little or no training in dealing with them.
There is a New York Times article about the incident involving Alan Pean. People need to be aware of these kinds of incidents and understand that psychiatric patients need help, not bullets. They need people trained to deescalate and force is the last thing you would ever want to use to help someone recover his or her mind.
This story raises other questions, such as what if Alan and his father had been white? Would the outcome be different? Would the hospital staff you turn to for help be able to recognize that when a white person says he needs mental help, they would hear the person and attempt to provide help? What prevents them from hearing the same statements from people of color? What information is available about the hospital you use and their policy about the use of force? How equipped are they to handle people with a mental illness? Is the person the staff calls for help going to be an armed police officer? And finally, what safe alternatives are there to hospitals for people with mental illness and how widely known are these alternatives?
Tonight I attended a screening of the 53206 movie at the First Unitarian Society. The movie showed the impact of the mass incarceration of African Americans focusing on a few families in this impoverished zip code. The zip code has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. I remember years ago being at a sign of hope in the community, a business incubator that was intended to help small business formation by African Americans. The businesses are long gone and what remains is the empty building.
The 53206 movie was shown at a Unitarian church in downtown Milwaukee to a packed crowd many of whom I did not know. There was an organizer from the 53206 project and talk about the lives being wasted and the depiction of a family hoping and waiting for their father figue and husband to return. He was denied parole, which is the most common result of parole hearings in Wisconsin. The governor plans to cut the parole department staffing even more.
The situation is complicated by the fact Wisconsin passed a truth in sentencing law in the late 1990s mandating that prisoners serve the full term of their prison sentences. But there are thousands like the man in the movie who are eligible for parole like the man in the movie but find the door slammed shut time and again. There is a lot of discretion still in the system and there are alternatives to long prison sentences but the fact we are not using them means that people are making money keeping things just the way they are. Who will have the courage to speak up? We signed cards tonight asking for changes but this is a long term project.
Huffington Post has two stories that speak of greed, one of which had immediate tragic consequences. Over the weekend people learned that a bus full of comedians including Tracy Morgan was struck by a truck while on the New Jersey Turnpike while returning from doing a show in Delaware. One man was pronounced dead at the scene from his injuries. Morgan is in critical condition in the hospital. And a third, the truck driver, Kevin Roper, a 35-year-old from Georgia, will be due in court on Wednesday on charges of vehicular homicide and three counts of assault by auto. Roper had not been in asleep in more than 24 hours when he was behind the wheel that night. This story has tragic consequences for the trucking industry. Over the years I have seen commercials warning truck drivers to pull over. Breaks are supposed to be mandated for these over the road drivers. And yet, here was a vehicular homicide. It is sad for all, because Roper probably has a family and other obligations. Are there other drivers out there on the road dozing off who should be at a rest stop, safe and asleep?
Think about it. Nothing, no bonus, or award is worth the risk of taking a life. I hope the facts will come out in this case to learn what may have led to Roper’s decision to take the wheel ad lose control of his vehicle.
The other story I read is one of personal ambition and or greed. Democratic State Senator Phillip P.Puckett was offered a prestigious job for himself and his daughter in exchange for resigning. His resignation would flip the Senate from Democratic to Republican and allow the Republicans to block a proposed expansion of Medicaid. Once Puckett’s acceptance of a bribe was revealed, he was forced to not accept the job but he resigned anyway. His deal may cost as many as 20,000 people in his district an opportunity to gain coverage under this program designed to aid low-income people. The expansion is desperately needed because the poor people in Puckett’s district have overwhelmed the free clinic.
The horrible Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act while allowing mostly Republican controlled states to refuse Medicaid expansion created a wedge for governors to drive a truck through. Governors like Walker of Wisconsin and Perry of Texas are keeping poor people out in the cold. And in the Commonwealth of Virginia there is a former state senator who did his part in selling out his voters.
The the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel there was news that a man at the Mental Health Complex who had become combative, was restrained and medicated and died two minutes after being treated. Earlier this week the newspaper ran an article recounting the stories of earlier deaths at the hospital. The news was not encouraging:; it included a man who had suffered a broken neck. Today’s story was even more discouraging because one of the officers had been trained in Crisis Intervention techniques designed to help prepare officers in de-escalation.
This story raises many questions. For instance, is there video evidence to help show the young man’s state of mind? What happened before he became “combative” that might have triggered him? How many people “took him down”, as the article explained? Is there anything that might have prevented this death from taking place? I am hoping that this death is thoroughly investigated because friends and family of people who receive treatment want to feel that their loved ones are safe, and restraints are used sparingly, if at all.
The second story I read was about near death: a young man stabbed and nearly killed his next door neighbor and her child. He ran back into his father’s house after the crime saying, “I’m sorry dad.” The dad in the story Andrew Wright was a man I had met when he was in his 20’s doing window treatments. He became a founding member of a weatherization business. After the company folded, he went on to become journeyman carpenter. We fell out of touch until we met again a couple of years ago when he told me that he was having trouble with his son. His son was hospitalized a few times and even seemed to be recovering well enough to have an apartment and a job until it all fell apart. The slide downward led to the stabbing and a woman and her baby were at death’s door.
I wrote yesterday about a foolish policy that prevented a woman from traveling on the basis of her mental illness. Tonight we have a two men who have had mental health treatment: one died under strange circumstances and the other rests in jail for two very serious crimes. And when stories like these appear, they are signs of a broken system.
I am visiting my old home and listening to Grace, the niece I wrote about years ago, is talking up a story. She is a four year old enrolled in the public schools and speaks perfect English. She even understands sequences and used the phrase “before I was born.”
Her father is a slender man, my first nephew, who is in his mid 40’s. He is quiet and self-assured. He knows what he is doing and seems like he is good at what he does. I told him when he dropped off Grace to visit that I had done well this year, met a nice woman and was happy. He asked me if he could see her picture and I said it was complicated. She’s a mental health advocate and very smart. But tends to shy away from cameras. She is compassionate, empathetic and likes local oddballs.
My sister and I are going to take Grace downtown to purchase tickets for a play. When she returns, she will begin the first draft of her book and we will be lining up publishers. Are we pushing this a little fast? I don’t think so.
After many Facebook updates about the 30 in America exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum I finally went there on my first full day of vacation and it was well worth the wait. I have seen some of the artists in the companion exhibit of Milwaukee contemporary artists. Taken together this trip broadened my knowledge of African American artists and the themes that they explore. I saw or heard a news story about Priceless, a heartbreaking work about a young man who was killed for a piece of jewelry he was wearing. I also saw works by Basquat, a New York City artist and a contemporary of Andy Warhol and Madonna.
I saw sexuality, the Black holocaust, laughter and unity. And I saw a family: three generations of an African-American family were touring. And our paths crossed several times. The father was explaining this to his children and mother/grandmother. I spoke with him about several pieces. We even ended up at the exhibit store together. He negotiated, thinking about what might look good in his office while I did the same. It was heartwarming and I hated seeing them leave. After we parted I stumbled upon the Milwaukee based exhibit and thought of going to find them. These are things you discover when you have a living wage and benefits.
I hope that my family, scattered across the United States, goes to see this exhibit when it travels near them. The longer you live, the more priceless things you can discover.
I recently began reading a book by Pete Earley called Crazy A father’s search though America’s mental health madness. The catalyst for the book was the mental breakdown of his son Mike. Mike, who had been a college student in Brooklyn nearing graduation, began acting very strangely, a fact which made one of his friends contact Pete. The message was: your son needs help. But his efforts to assist Mike were complicated by a number of factors: as an adult, Mike had the legal right to reject treatment. He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder but resisted taking medication, calling it poison. Even when Pete drove his son to the hospital, doctors often refused to admit him, repeating a mantra about Mike not posing a risk to himself or to others.
Shortly after one failed attempt to get treatment, Mike ran away, broke into a neighbor’s house and caused a significant amount of damage to the house while taking a bubble bath. He was arrested and released without bail. When the neighbors discovered what had happened, they were furious and demanded that Mike be charged with two felonies. If convicted, he would have been lost many rights, including being barred from entering the profession he had been preparing to enter before his break from reality. Pete dug in his heals and refused allow his son to be labeled by something over which he had no control: his brain disease.
Eventually, Mike was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and began cooperating with treatment. He even recovered well enough to begin returning to work. Unfortunately he now faced 2 different types of stigma: as a person convicted of a crime and as a person receiving mental health treatment.
This experience made Pete want to research the mental health system, especially the criminalization of mental health. The laws prevented him from forcing his son to get help but then were ready to lock him up if he committed a crime, even if he could not understand the consequences of his actions.
Pete learned about the process of declaring that a mentally delusional person was ready and able to stand trial. The method involved testing and retesting people on a series of 10 questions about the legal process: do you know what the judge does, what is the prosecutor’s role and what does the juror do. None of these questions have any relevance in determining sanity.The most disheartening thing that Earley found was the way that reports and exposes of the barbaric treatment in jails failed to result in changes in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
All of this troubles me because I am wondering whether Milwaukee will provide sufficient safeguards in the downsizing of the Milwaukee Mental Health Complex. It is very likely that the Milwaukee County jail is the largest treatment provider for persons with mental illness. And we are still having problems finding housing for some of the people in the housing . Will the jail become their next residence? If so, that would be crazy.