Address mental health issues; it's the smart thing to do

Nov. 15, 2010 at 5:15 a.m.

Most of us do not think we'll wake up one morning hearing voices, seeing someone who doesn't exist or having our moods shift from giddy laughter to suicidal depression within minutes.

But what if the phone rings and you're told it's your father, mother, brother, sister, daughter, son or best friend who is showing symptoms of a severe mental disorder?

I got that call. It happened when my college-age son, Mike, began acting strangely and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Because he was an adult, I couldn't simply swoop in and make medical decisions for him. An array of incompatible laws about patient rights stood in my way, like a line of trees. But even that was nothing compared with what happened when Mike, suffering delusions, broke into a stranger's house to take a bubble bath. He was arrested and suddenly that line of trees became a forest. I found myself lost in our nation's mental health system.

What I discovered is that our current system really isn't a system at all. It's a confusing, often contradictory, overly complicated patchwork of programs, services, laws and bureaucracies. In short, it's CRAZY - not my son -- but our system.

In Texas today, the odds of an individual with a mental disorder ending up in jail - rather than in a hospital are 7.8 to one. That's crazy. A 2008 study, found that 1,900 of the 11,000 inmates (17.3 percent) in the Harris County Jail were on psychotropic medications, costing that jail and taxpayers $24 million per year and none of them was getting any treatment to get better. That's crazy. The same study quoted a Harris County official saying, "The jails have become the psychiatric hospitals of the United States." That's crazy.

The Victoria College has invited me to speak as part of its Lyceum Lecture Series about my family's struggles and what I've discovered as a father and a journalist about our failing mental health system. I'm especially pleased to be coming to Victoria because it's home to the Gulf Bend Center, an example of what can happen when mental health professions and a community work together to help people recover. Gulf Bend shows us what works. It reminds us that providing meaningful treatment is not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do because in the long run, effective community mental health treatment has been shown to save tax dollars, in part, by stopping the needless criminalization of persons with mental disorders.

That's not crazy. It's smart.

Pete Earley is the author of "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness."



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