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An Unsurprising Tragedy

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(June 5, 2014) Warren Pennick, 56, was found dead in his cell early Tuesday morning nearly a month after being transferred from a mental health facility to a prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. The inmate’s death was ruled as a “passive” suicide hanging using a bed sheet (“Mentally ill Lansdale mom-killer commits suicide,” the Intelligencer, June 5).

warrenpennickPennick, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was serving a 20- to 40-year prison sentence for stabbing his mother to death in 2012. His diagnosis allowed him to receive treatment at a psychiatric hospital rather than at the prison.

But in late April, Pennick was transferred back to the prison “once his mental illness was under control,” said his defense attorney, Robert Adshead. “Unfortunately, the prison system is just not set up to deal with someone so seriously mentally ill no matter how much the illness may seem under control.”

While the deaths of Pennick and his mother are tragedies, they are certainly not surprising.

There are approximately 1,000 homicides – among the estimated 20,000 total homicides in the US committed each year by people with untreated severe mental illness. But it is even more likely that a person with schizophrenia will commit suicide, with an estimated 10 to 13 percent committing the act each year. Add incarceration to the mix and a deadly outcome is even more likely.

Stories like these remind us that as people with psychiatric disease are left untreated they will increasingly fill our jails and prisons due to violent crime or small misdemeanors, and corrections officials will be forced to assume responsibility for their mental health care, despite the fact that they are not trained to do so.

The mental health system is broken and one need look no further than the criminal justice system to see just how badly.

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Calls for Mental Illness Treatment Reform in the News

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(June 3, 2014) Even when tragedies involving untreated severe mental illness are not making national headlines, reliance on the Treatment Advocacy Center as the only expert source of information on the consequences of our broken mental health system continues. Here are a few of the latest headlines:

doris fuller cspanDebate over forced treatment of the severely mentally ill” – Dr. E. Fuller Torrey tells host Diane Rehm that unless we begin focusing on the severely mentally ill, we won’t be able to fix the system. Rep. Tim Murphy and family member G.G. Burns are also guests– National Public Radio

US mental health system” – Most mental health funding is not targeted to those who need help the most and we must overhaul our system of care, Doris A. Fuller tells Washington Journal host Steven Scully – C-SPAN

Speak up more on red flags” – Therapists are reluctant to break patient confidentiality and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) gives them an excuse not to do so, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey writes in Room for Debate – New York Times

America’s mental health care crisis: families left to fill the void of a broken system” – Jennay Ghowrwal, research and communications associate with the Treatment Advocacy Center opens up her home and shares her struggle of being the caretaker for her mentally ill mother with journalist Ruth Spencer – The Guardian

American jails have become the new mental asylums – and you’re paying the bill” – “While some of the mentally ill population in our jail has been charged with violent crimes, the majority has been charged with non-violent, lesser offenses such as retail theft, trespassing and drug possession. These inmates end up staying because they can't afford to post bail – or because they have nowhere to go,” Sheriff Thomas Dart, who oversees the Cook County Jail in Illinois writes – The Guardian

If one of these stories or a report in your own community provides an opportunity to share why mental illness treatment reform is important to you, please submit a letter to the editor, online comment or op-ed to advocate for improved laws and more complete use of them wherever you live. You'll find advocacy tips here.

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"How Bipolar Disorder Destroyed Joe's Life"

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(June 1, 2014) The wife of a man with severe mental illness shares how she lost faith in the mental health system on author Pete Earley’s blog.

“My husband Joe and I enjoyed 18 wonderful years together. We had a beautiful daughter and our lives were filled with love, laughter, joy, hard work and exciting plans for the future.

husbandwife“That was before he got sick, before he was diagnosed with a mental illness. The first sign came in December 2003 two weeks after Joe got laid off from a company where he had worked for 20 years.

“During the next six years, it took over our lives. We lived from crisis to crisis.  Our family became unsettled. Nothing was predictable. Thankfully, Joe was never physically abusive to me nor did he self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. But when he became manic, he would go on spending sprees, buying items we couldn’t possibly afford, such as an expensive boat.

“I completely lost faith in the way our mental health system cares for someone so ill.  I was caring for him alone while trying to work a full-time job. I was overwhelmed.

“I asked him if he would try the medication the doctors prescribed for his bipolar and was surprised when he agreed. And then after a few weeks something amazing happened — the old Joe began to return. He was literally transformed by the medication. For three months I had my Joe. He died at home from cancer.

“The cause of death were complications caused by his cancer. That’s what everyone said, but I knew better. It was his mental illness. His denial of reality was part of his mental illness and it was as much his untreated bipolar disorder as it was the cancer that killed him.

“I am speaking out today because individuals with mental illness and their families need help. It is hard to believe what happened to my family, but it did happen and I know it is happening to other families — more than we are willing to admit.   Families caring for a loved one who has a severe mental illness need help and support. The role of caregiver is so under-recognized in our society, especially while caring for a loved one with a severe mental illness. It can be a frustrating, lonely and isolating experience. It was for me.”

Read the entire piece on Pete Earley’s blog.

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We Have Been in the Rodgers’ Shoes – personally speaking

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(May 30, 2014) Many of us have been in the same shoes as the Rodger family. I am the mom of a very sick son who has no idea he is ill. He doesn’t believe he needs medicine and is currently in one of the only two hospitals in our state that can help him. I get chills reading the accounts of Elliot Rodger’s story. We too have called the police and the crisis teams for help time and time again, only to have our son politely say he is just fine.

mother sonI have always said, “I don't want to be one of those families in the news someday!"

Everyone else who lives around us knows what is going on with our son, but the laws prevent people from actually helping him. Laws need to change so that families can get assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) for their loved ones. We need more beds and facilities so that when people do get access to treatment, there is a place for them to go.

Our son ended up in jail for a minor situation, so let’s also point out that jails have become our new psychiatric hospitals because there is nowhere else for parents to turn. Our son should have been in a hospital. Instead, we had to fight to prove that he was ill. If he had cancer or kidney issues, he would have received treatment in a hospital. Can you imagine a heart patient ending up in jail?

Until people wake up and understand that the mental health system needs a complete overhaul, people with mental illness will continue to get hurt themselves, or hurt someone else.

Right now, families are given the responsibility for caring for their sons and daughters, but their hands are tied when a psychiatric crisis strikes. Then, when someone does get hurt, the family is always the first to get blamed. Yet, in many cases, the family was screaming for help long before the tragedy occurred.

There are many of us who are suffering this awful system. It makes no sense. This shouldn't be a political issue. Our mental health system is in true crisis and yet nobody does anything.

Meanwhile we have more and more people getting hurt or worse.

What will it take to change the laws? Is this the best we can offer to those who need help the most? It’s outrageous. What is it going to take?

Laurel
Pennsylvania

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The Million Dollar Question

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(May 29, 2014) High-profile tragedies make the news and call into question the best ways to ensure access to treatment for people with severe mental illness. But often overlooked are the smaller, everyday tragedies that don't make national headlines.

Joann Kennedy, a 51-year old who has battled schizophrenia, homeless and multiple jail stays has cost Texas nearly $1 million dollars in care, reports Andy Pierrotti for ABC News. She is one of the frequent fliers revolving between the criminal justice system, homelessness and psychiatric hospitals who most likely will never become violent but needs help nonetheless (“Defenders investigation: The cost of troubled minds,” May 29).

kennedyscostOver a 20-year period, Kennedy spent nearly 1,500 days behind bars and was admitted to the emergency room 326 times - at a cost to taxpayers of $676,472. This total doesn't even include court costs, medical services costs or law enforcement costs.

Kennedy’s story once again demonstrates that putting people with mental illness in jails isn’t saving taxpayers any money. It also isn’t surprising that when she did get help, it came from the criminal justice system or other places that the chronically mentally ill end up when they are locked out of treatment.

Texas has only 19 percent of the beds necessary to meet the needs of its population. Texas was awarded a C for its ability to divert people with serious mental illness from jail and an F for its use of laws that would allow people with severe mental illness to receive mandatory treatment.

We have said over and over again, the institutions most likely to be treating people with mental illness are not hospitals, but jails and prisons. In fact, our recent study on the subject found the largest mental health institutions in 44 of 50 states are jails or prisons.

With one million dollars at stake for patients like Kennedy, isn’t it time we look at real solutions to helping the most vulnerable among us? We must begin by maintaining a functional public mental health treatment system so people with mental illness do not end up in prisons and jails.

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