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Turning Personal Loss into Public Gain

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(Jan. 28, 2014) “The system failed my son,” Senator Creigh Deeds told 60 Minutes in his first TV interview since the suicide of his son, Gus, two months ago (“Nowhere to go: Mentally ill youth in crisis,” Jan. 26, CBS).

creigh_deedsGus Deeds was 24 years old and had been struggling with mental illness for years when he was released from emergency hospitalization in November because no available psychiatric beds were found during the four hours of a psychiatric hold in Virginia. Following his release, he stabbed his father, Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) in the head and torso before fatally shooting himself.

Scars from the attack still visible on his face, Deeds spoke about his son’s mental illness, suicide and his own new mission to change Virginia’s mental health laws.

Like many other family members with a loved one who suffers from severe mental illness, Deeds told 60 Minutes producer Scott Pelley that he faults the broken mental illness treatment system. “For too long we've been shoving ... problems with respect to the mentally ill under the table,” he said. “We need to take a good long look at fundamental changes in our system of care."

Deeds’ has introduced several bills that might have made a difference for his son, including one that would create a real-time psych bed registry and another that would increase the duration of emergency psychiatric holds from four hours – currently the shortest in the nation – to 24.  

“Gus was a great kid, a perfect son,” Deeds told Pelley. “I want people to remember the brilliant friendly, loving kid that was Gus Deeds.”

Watch the full interview.

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Mental Illness Was Kelly Thomas’s Death Sentence

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(Jan. 24, 2014) Kelly Thomas was given a death sentence because he was “mentally ill, disheveled and unmedicated in public,” says Treatment Advocacy Center board member Carla Jacobs.

kelly-thomas“The reality is that our mental health system is complicit in Kelly’s death,” she told columnist Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times about the acquittal of the police officers charged with Kelly’s beating death (“Law could be Kelly Thomas’ legacy,” Jan. 21). “It is not geared to protect those with the most serious illnesses.”

Jacobs said she hopes the legacy of Thomas – a homeless man with untreated schizophrenia – at a Fullerton, California, transit station will motivate Orange County at last to implement Laura’s Law, the state’s assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) law.

Thomas’s father, Ron Thomas, described as “distraught” by the verdict, told Lopez he would welcome the implementation of AOT in California –and more. “There should be mandatory mental health training for all peace officers.”  

We agree. If more California counties implement Laura’s Law and provide training for police officers on how to respond to a psychiatric crisis, it may save those who could otherwise face a fate similar to Thomas.

“In Kelly Thomas’ memory, we owe them a better turn,” columnist Lopez concluded.

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A Glimpse Inside Cook County Jail

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(Jan. 22, 2014) If anyone else needs to be convinced that the United States is failing people with severe mental illness, a riveting new piece takes a close look inside Cook County Jail in Illinois where almost one-third of the inmates suffer from mental illness (“Mentally ill are often locked up in jails that can’t help,” NPR, Jan. 20).

cook county jail“To walk in and feel like every other person I’m interviewing is mentally ill on any given day, I can’t wrap my brain around it, says Elli Montgomery, deputy director of mental health policy for the jail.

“You see people who are so profoundly ill that you understand this isn’t the place for them,” Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, head of mental health, tells NPR.

Often, inmates cycle in and out of jail because of they lack support and access to medication on the outside.

"Here you have a population clearly identified as mentally ill, and you're releasing them to the street with nothing," says Sheriff Dart, who oversees Cook County Jail. “What do you think is going to happen?”

"I just find the irony so sick that that society finds it OK to put the same people in jails and prisons," Dart continues on the result of deinstitutionalization which he blames for the high number of inmates with mental illness who currently occupy his jail.

These statements highlight the sad fact that there are few places where deinstitutionalization is more evident than in our criminal justice system, where jails and prisons have replaced hospitals as the institutions housing the most psychiatric patients.

By ensuring access to treatment and recovery, individuals with mental illness will be less likely to have such a presence in our correctional systems. At the Treatment Advocacy Center we are working to make that a reality.

Listen to the entire story.

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My Son’s Mental Illness Robbed Him of His Life – personally speaking

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(Jan. 17, 2014) My son was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 24. He also suffered from anosognosia and often refused treatment, which ultimately sent him through the revolving door of involuntary commitments. But he was always released before he was actually stable so that he could make room for others.

prison_mental_illnessIn 2004, in the midst of a psychotic episode, my son called 911. When the police arrived, my son shot and killed two officers because he believed they were aliens. He spent the following three and half years in jail awaiting trial. His first 13 months were spent in semi-isolation on suicide watch.

In the final weeks of his life in prison, he was given psychotropic meds that had heat warnings. While on the medications he was placed in a cell with no air movement and a temperature above 100 degrees. He died less than two weeks after being placed in these conditions. The autopsy also indicated major bruising, most likely from a beating.

In the wake of my son’s death, our county established a 24/7 mental health officer to help respond to people like my son.

My son had had dreams and ambitions, but his mental illness robbed him of both.

MARY
ALABAMA

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Police Found Not Guilty in Deadly Beating

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(Jan. 16, 2014) The police officers who beat Kelly Thomas to death – a homeless man with untreated schizophrenia – were found not guilty Monday on all charges related to Thomas’s 2011 death (“Ex-officers found not guilty in beating death of Kelly Thomas,” CBS News, Jan. 14).

police_brutalityAmong the lessons of this tragedy is its reminder that victims of violent episodes stemming from untreated severe mental illness are very often the victims of illness themselves.

Yet, Thomas’s death is just one of the many deadly encounters that have happened with people with untreated severe mental illness come into contact with law enforcement. Our Preventable Tragedies Database currently contains 900 reports of individuals with mental illness who were killed or injured by police officers.  

If Kelly Thomas had received the treatment he needed for his schizophrenia, he may not have encountered law enforcement officers in the first place. But Orange County is among those in California who have not yet implemented Laura’s Law, the state’s assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) law, which would allow for mandatory outpatient treatment for people like Thomas.

Orange County - and the rest of the country - needs better mental health laws and policies if deadly encounters between law enforcement and people with severe mental illness are going to stop.

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