Parents Wonder About their Childrens' First Day Behind Bars


(March 11, 2014) There are too many parents with gut-wrenching stories like the ones these two anonymous parents are telling.

prison_daughter“I remember my son’s first day of kindergarten like it was yesterday. The angst I felt when dropping him off and watching that timid little boy walk to the front door,” writes the mother of a son with mental illness in a letter author Pete Earley published on his blog (“Frustrated mother describes her psychotic son’s first day in prison”).

“Tears from the realization that my ‘baby’ was growing up and would eventually have to face this harsh world without me," she writes. "Worrying about whether or not he would be treated with kindness by the other children in his morning kindergarten class.”

These are memories that every parent can identify with. But too many parents can also identify with the experience of a son or daughter’s first day behind bars.

“Tuesday was my mentally ill son’s first day in the prison unit he’s been assigned to,” Earley’s letter writer continues. “The intensity of this particular angst, the depth of the sorrow in my tears, and the heart-wrenching worry over how he will be treated by the guards and inmates is unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my life.”

And from another parent in another publication. “My daughter sleeps in jail tonight, not because she is a criminal, but because the voices told her to do something that was,” begins a father’s story in Daily Kos (“My daughter sleeps in jail tonight: How mental health treatment fails America’s youth,” Feb. 19).

“Instinctively, I stop at her bedroom door and look in at the stuffed animals left untouched on her pillowed bedspread. I try to accept the fact that tonight, my precious baby girl will rest her head on a cold and dirty mattress in a jail.”

Parents will continue marking first days like this until America stops incarcerating its young people with severe mental illness and starts giving them timely and effective treatment before they commit crimes.

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A Dramatic Year Produces Modest Reforms in Virginia


(March 10, 2014) Following the Deeds tragedy, Virginia lawmakers appeared eager to enact mental health reform to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. But the General Assembly adjourned last week leaving more substantial reforms unaddressed (“Mental-health advocates fear fundamental problems in Virginia have been left to fester,” the Washington Post, March 9).

hospital-bed-genericIt can’t be ignored that lawmakers certainly made modest changes to address the circumstances that occurred late last fall when Senator Deeds’ son attacked his father before taking his own life. The legislature voted to give emergency clinicians more time to find a psychiatric bed and passed legislation compelling the state to maintain an online real-time registry of available beds, which went live this week.

The work in Virginia is far from complete. Virginia needs more hospital beds, clarification of its assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) law and broader inpatient criteria so that the state can effectively treat individuals in need before another tragedy. 

Now that the legislative session is over, we hope that the determination to help families like the Deeds’ continues and future tragedies will be prevented with the passage of meaningful reform.

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A Sister Reflects on Her Brother’s Lost Life


(March 7, 2014) Margie Warrell shares her sorrow over her brother Peter’s passing and calls on all of us to view individuals with severe mental illness as the vulnerable human beings they are in a heartfelt opinion piece (“Mental Illness: Extend Compassion, Not Judgment,” Forbes, Mar. 2).

familyIn the heartfelt opinion piece, Warrell describes her brother, Peter, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and spent ten years with his illness before taking his life. A once talented athlete with a vibrant wit, Peter became overweight and was tormented by shame of his illness, withdrawing from seeing old friends.

“When Peter took his life . . . it was because he had given up any hope that life would ever get better,” Warrell writes. “While none of us liked to admit it, we all had.”

Warrell says she wishes that instead of judgment, people would extend compassion to individuals with mental illnesses and that they would recognize the heartache they and those who love them endure.

“Next time you hear of an innocent person who is murdered by someone with a mental illness, I would love you to think about the perpetuator not as the brutal heartless villain, but as a victim also,” Warrel requests of her audience.

We echo this plea. Psychosis is a terrible state of twisted reality that truly creates a prison within one’s own mind. It is inhumane that society often views mental illness as a reflection of someone’s character, or as a choice.

Unfortunately, the stigma associated with severe mental illness is made worse by acts of violence related to it. It is our job as a society to act in ways that protect those among us suffering frailty of mind, and to take collective responsibility when they lack treatment or moral support from their communities.

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The Casualties of Schizophrenia – personally speaking


(March 6, 2014) Sometime last summer I got to visit the traveling Vietnam memorial while it was in nearby Fort Bridger. I looked up the only fatality from my hometown. He and I had played in the same backfield on our high school football team the year I was a junior and he was a senior.

vietnam warWhen I got home I wrote a short essay about the day and the thoughts it had inspired. In my essay I wrote that I had not served in Vietnam mostly because of my schizophrenia. I wondered who got the better deal-those who served or me.

That would really be hard to determine by any means. I have lots of friends who served. None of them had a good time over there. I never knew anyone with a serious mental illness who wouldn’t have preferred to be spared. With the thought that at least I didn’t die in the jungle, I put aside a question next to impossible to answer. But it kept bugging me.

Today I decided to look up mortality statistics. What I found follows:

  • 2.6 million Americans served in Vietnam in a capacity wherein they might be exposed to enemy fire.
  • Of these 58,156 died.
  • That’s a mortality rate of 2.2%

Ten years after a diagnosis, 10% of schizophrenics are dead.

I can’t help but think the war in Vietnam ended in part because the public demanded its end. Imagine how many lives could be spared or improved if there was even a fraction of the public demand for better mental illness research and treatment.

Joseph Bowers
Author of Life Under a Cloud: The Story of a Schizophrenic

Purchase a copy of the book here

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RESEARCH: 1 in 3 Incarcerated Women Suffer from Severe Mental Illness


(March 5, 2014) Nearly one-third of incarcerated women are currently suffering serious mental illness and 43 percent of women in jails and prisons meet criteria for having ever had a serious mental illness, concludes a new report published in the journal Psychiatric Services in Advance (“Mental illness highly prevalent among incarcerated women,” Psychiatry Online, Mar. 7).

jail_barbedwireThe researchers examined a sample of 491 women in jails in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina and the District of Colombia metropolitan area over the course of nearly a year ending in March 2012.

Over a quarter of the women met criteria for having ever suffered a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder in their lifetime. This includes major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Among the women who met criteria for a severe mental illness, 45 percent showed signs of severe functional impairment.

“The prevalence of serious mental illnesses . . . suggests the critical need for comprehensive assessment of mental health and impairment level at the point of women’s entry into the criminal justice system and for increasing alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health and drug courts, and for programs that can address the complexity of female offenders’ treatment needs,” the researchers said.

More and more, evidence demonstrates that jails and prisons have become the new psychiatric hospitals.

For many of these men and women, adequate treatment can be key to avoiding contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. Better treatment standards to allow for court-ordered treatment when necessary can help avoid the very crises that often lead to arrest.  

And for those who need it, assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) is identified by the U.S. Department of Justice as an effective method of reducing crime and violence.

Read our study, “More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons than Hospitals.

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