“After Mr. Bear-heels’s death, the Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, said that the department had “failed” and that officers would receive additional training. A police spokesman said on Wednesday that the chief was not available to comment.”–The New York Times
Or as Bob Dylan put it in the last line of “Oxford Town”: “Somebody better ‘vestigate soon.”
Two former police officers in Nebraska were charged with assault after beating and using a Taser on a mentally ill man as they tried to take him into custody for “erratic behavior” in Omaha last month, an official said on Wednesday. The man later died.
The Douglas County attorney, Donald W. Kleine, said in a televised news conference that Scotty Payne, a five-year veteran, faces charges of felony second-degree assault for repeatedly shocking the man, Zachary Bear-heels, 29, with a Taser on June 5.
Ryan McClarty, who has been on the force for two years, was charged with misdemeanor assault for punching Mr. Bear-heels, Mr. Kleine said.
“Zachary Bear-heels had committed no crime,” Mr. Kleine said. “He was simply a human being suffering from severe mental illness that was quite obvious to anyone who was in contact with him.”
Asked why the former officers had not been charged with murder or manslaughter, he said, “There is no evidence whatsoever that these officers intentionally killed Mr. Bear-heels.” He said the coroner’s office ruled that Mr. Bear-heels’s death was caused by “excited delirium.”
Attorney Don Kleine to files assault charges against 2 officersVideo by KETV NewsWatch 7
“That is something we had a question about,” Mr. Kleine said, referring to possible tougher charges. But he said his office could find no “approximate cause” linking the officers’ actions to the cause of death — such as the use of the Taser, or the blows, which did not result in “brain bleed” or contusions to the brain, he said.
The officers were fired Friday, after the Omaha Police Department investigated the episode.
Mr. Payne, 38, is due to turn himself in on Friday for a bail hearing, and Mr. McClarty, 27, will be cited on suspicion of third-degree assault, Mr. Kleine said.
Matthew D. Burns, a lawyer for Mr. Payne, said his client was “devastated” and “feels terrible because a person lost his life.”
Mr. McClarty’s lawyer could not immediately be reached.
Mr. Kleine said he was filing the charges before a grand jury being called to look into the case, which has attracted concern from Mr. Bear-heels’s Native American community. The felony assault charge carries up to 20 years in prison — the same as manslaughter — and the other charge can carry up to one year in prison, a $1,000 fine or both.
According to a police statement, the episode started on June 3, when Mr. Bear-heels was taking a bus from Murdo, S.D., to Oklahoma City. He was dropped off at a station in Omaha and was not allowed to re-board because a passenger had complained about his behavior.
On June 4, Mr. Bear-heels’s mother, Renita Chalepah, called the Omaha Police Department to report that her son was missing and that he was bipolar and had schizophrenia. On June 5, officers were called to a gas station because of a disturbance and found a man, later identified as Mr. Bear-heels, dancing in front of the convenience store and refusing to leave, according to the police.
Officers on the scene spoke to his mother about where to take him. But after he was placed into a cruiser in handcuffs for “erratic behavior,” he tried to leave the vehicle, and four officers, including Officer Payne and Officer McClarty, tried to restrain him and force him back into the car.
After a struggle, Officer Payne shouted, “Taser, Taser,” and warned Mr. Bear-heels three more times that the Taser would be used, the statement said.
Officer Payne then discharged the device, which struck Mr. Bear-heels in the abdomen and right thigh. The officer continued to activate the device as it clung to Mr. Bear-heels, who resisted being dragged into the vehicle. As Mr. Bear-heels was propped up in a sitting position against the car, he stopped resisting, the police statement said, but Officer Payne kept using the Taser on him over the next one minute 45 seconds.
“You’re gonna get it again,” the police statement quoted the officer as saying.
“These are egregious violations of the Omaha Police Department’s policy, procedures and training on use of force and the use of a Taser,” the statement said.
After Mr. Bear-heels managed to slip a hand out of the cuffs, swung his arms and kicked out with his legs, Officer McClarty punched him in the head and neck area multiple times while Officer Payne used the Taser again — making it about 12 times that he used the device on Mr. Bear-heels, the police statement said.
Part of the encounter was caught on a dashboard camera of a police vehicle and shown during the news conference.
After more police officers arrived to help, Mr. Bear-heels was handcuffed to a gurney. Medics then said he had stopped breathing and had no pulse. Mr. Bear-heels was pronounced dead in the hospital, the police said.
After Mr. Bear-heels’s death, the Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, said that the department had “failed” and that officers would receive additional training. A police spokesman said on Wednesday that the chief was not available to comment.
One woman, a member of the Native American community who attended the news conference, tearfully spoke up about her fears for her own mentally ill son. “We are people, too,” she said.
The book is permanently closed now on James “Abba” Boyd. The book may be closed as well on the police body-cam as a check on violent police behavior, especially toward the mentally ill.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that it would no longer pursue criminal charges in the most shocking, sensational, and visually documented, episode of lethal force by police in the young century.
Was the lethal force necessary? View the clip above and judge for yourself. The overwhelming popular consensus holds that it was not. Yet in a court of law, a trial in which jurors viewed the footage, cutting-edge forensic technology yielded to the oldest form of persuasion known to man: words. Artful words, delivered by an “expert witness” for the defense. Second-degree murder charges against the two officers, detective Keith Sandy and officer Dominique Perez, who fired bullets into the psychotic Boyd at close range dissolved in a hung jury. And on Wednesday, federal investigators announced that they saw no point in continuing their inquiry.
I wrote about the Boyd killing, and the outrage aroused by the video, in Chapter 10, “Chaos and Heartbreak,” of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. More details, and much testimony, has poured forth in the three years between my writing and Wednesday’s final withdrawal by the Justice Department. Here is a summary of how the story built, and of the significance I believe it holds.
WHO WAS JAMES “ABBA” BOYD?
As reporters Patrick Malone and Daniel J. Chacón describe him in this probing profile a month after he was killed http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/in-death-by-police-bullets-boyd-has-become-a-cause/article_a356df2a-55ba-5ca8-aac1-432f63640bf0.html, Boyd was a lost soul from the moment of his birth until the moment of his death. His alcoholic and abusive parents divorced. His father beat him with a rubber hose, and Boyd claimed sexual abuse by relatives. He spent much of his childhood in foster homes, and much of his adulthood in mental institutions and in jail. He was chronically homeless. His sister recalled that despite these hardships, James was “highly sensitive, affectionate and intelligent with a good sense of humor.”
These traits could not save him from being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
As a mentally ill homeless man in a medium-sized city (population 559,000), Boyd was inferentially known to the police. Known and despised. In fact, another bit of recorded evidence, not widely circulated, appears to substantiate the inference. A squad car dash-cam recorded a conversation between Detective Sandy and another officer as they headed toward the Sandia foothills. The voices are indistinct and variously interpreted, but seemed to indicate that Sandy knew his quarry.
It was said of Boyd that the one corner of the world where he could find a measure of peace, and some relief from the thoughts that tormented him, was the remote sweep of the Sandia foothills about 13 miles east of Albuquerque. It was here, of course, that he was slaughtered.
Boyd was 39 when he made his final visit to those foothills on the Sunday of March 16, 2004. The husky, bearded man with deep circles under his eyes carried some rudimentary camping equipment in a bulging kind of knapsack. He may have been wailing. A resident of a gated community on the edge of the wasteland looked out his window and spotted him. The spotter was offended: camping without a permit was against the law! He called the police.
Before long, squad cars with flashing red lights began screeching to a halt in the vicinity. As the day wore on, reinforcements arrived; the armed force would swell to forty officers, including a SWAT team. Officers deployed and crept toward Boyd, who was standing motionless beside a large rock. They had brought service revolvers, Taser guns, a rifle, a “bean-bag”-dispensing shotgun, a German shepherd attack dog, and a supply of “flash-bangs”—non-lethal devices used to stun and temporarily blind a suspect. Apparently, fighter jets from nearby Kirtland Air Force Base were unavailable.
The police made do with what they had. They demanded that Boyd surrender. Threatened and thrown on the defensive—the most dangerous possible state for someone in psychosis—sBoyd stood his ground. The video shows a small white object in each of his hands. Police would later describe the objects as knives.
To their credit, the police did not attack immediately. The single police officer present who’d had some crisis-negotiation training tried to talk Boyd into giving up. The addled man responded that he was the Defense Department and did not appreciate being given orders. The talk eddied and ebbed and flowed for an hour or so, as the two discussed Playstation games and whether Boyd could have a meal at a Denny’s if he surrendered.
Eventually, a senior office pulled the negotiator away and assigned him to another duty. Now effective communication had ended.
The standoff continued. It ended after more than three hours, near nightfall. The video shows Boyd seemingly ready to walk the short distance down the slope to where a clutch of cops faced him, weapons drawn. The sticking point, fatal to him, was that he refused to drop the knives in his hands.
And then all law-enforcement breaks loose. Boyd turns to his right and bends to pick up his knapsack. He hoists it over his shoulder and bends again. Bewilderingly, it is at this vulnerable and unthreatening moment, with Boyd absorbed in gathering his belongings, that an officer lobs a flash-bang. It explodes at the cornered man’s feet and produces the desired effect. Boyd lurches, then drops the sack, spreads his arms, and freezes. Sandy and Perez close within four feet of him, the German shepherd racing out ahead. The officers yell, “Get on the ground!” When Boyd refuses, they open fire with rifle and pistol. Boyd begins a pivot to his left, at which point he takes a rifle bullet to his back, ripping through a lung. Bullets strike both his arms, shattering the right one. He sprawls face-down on the rocky ground and receives a bean-bag blast in his buttocks. The dog continues to worry at him. Clearly, he is grievously wounded, yet the officers show no urgency in getting him off to a hospital. Instead, they surreally insist on him getting his hands up, although he is prone.
As I write in Chapter 10,
“The shooting stops, and the police chat among themselves for a few moments, striking attitudes of disengagement weirdly typical of officers—and perpetrators as well—in the seconds following use of lethal force. Then an officer leans down to the mortally wounded man and tugs harshly at his left arm. At length he yanks it free [from beneath Boyd’s torso], and everyone crowds around to see what is in Boyd’s hand. From the video it is not clear what, if anything, he had been holding.”
Eventually the police transport Boyd to a hospital half an hour away. That night, doctors amputate his shattered arm and remove the punctured lung. A few hours later, James “Abba” Boyd dies.
The city’s residents were unstrung by years of lethal gunplay by the city’s police department: some thirty-seven shooting deaths of civilians since 2010 alone, resulting in twenty-three of them fatally (three-fourths of these were mentally ill). None of these cases produced an indictment. Yet Albuquerque paid out a cumulative $28 million to settle officer misconduct lawsuits.
But even this sustained butchery took second place to another factor that raised James “Abba” Boyd’s execution in the New Mexico foothills to almost a sacrificial moment: with it, the body-cam came of age.
Miniature video-recording devices had been on the market and in use by some police forces for several years before this event. Yet never had the footage from one made such an impact on the public imagination or on law-enforcement policy. After the Albuquerque police department released this shocking visual narrative at the demands of the Boyd family’s lawyers, it—and the still images made from it—played on TV newscasts, in newspapers, and on websites. Versions of it, edited to varying lengths, are still available on You Tube.
It was just this visual narrative that caught my attention as I began work on NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE in 2014. Credulous fool that I am, I included the Boyd/body-cam saga partly because I believed that it heralded a milestone. This device, surely, would usher in an era of accountability and self-restraint among those police officers who might otherwise give vent to their more sadistic impulses.
USHERING IN A NEW. . .ERROR
Three years can be a long time for the lifespan of an era in this country. As I commented at the beginning of this essay, the book is permanently closed now on James “Abba” Boyd. And closed along with it is the hope that the body-cam, or any other deus ex machina, might ensure safety—or at least the lives—of mentally ill people in trouble with the law, law enforcement, or jailers.
Largely on the strength of the damning video, detective Keith Sandy and officer Dominique Perez, who’d fired the fatal bullets into Boyd, were indicted on second-degree murder charges. But last October, a mistrial resulted when jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict.
McCarthy, who is 78, is a former SWAT team member. A profile of him in the online journal New Mexico In Depth http://nmindepth.com/2016/12/04/officers-language-strips-emotion-from-shootings/ describes his courtroom skill in using “stilted, mechanical language [which] is typical of jargon used by police officers across the country in reports and testimony. But when used to describe a police officer’s decision to use deadly force, it can also have the added result, intentional or not, of transforming a chaotic, emotionally charged scene into an abstract, formulaic equation” and thus desensitize a jury to the moral consequences of what is being tried.
The report was published in December 2016 by journalists Justin Horwath and Jeff Proctor, and it deserves wider attention than it probably received. Horwath and Proctor take us into a pervasive world of para-militarized courtspeakdesigned exactly to accomplish what George Orwell prophesied: “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
For instance, guns are not “guns” in this specialized language; they are “systems,” or “platforms.” Police officers use them not against human beings, but against “problems.” The policeman’s duty is to “fire until that problem disappears from the sight picture.”
Or, to update the adage: A picture is no longer worth a thousand words. In courtspeak, not even a thousand words are worth a word.
Law enforcement failed James Boyd. Forensic technology failed James Boyd. Language failed James Boyd. And the search continues for some way to bolster the odds of simple continued existence among society’s most abject members as they are confronted by the most dangerous of the most powerful.
A hallucinating inmate caught spitting and urinating on the floor of his cell. A woman wildly smearing fecal matter on her cell walls. These were just two of 47 unstable disturbing accounts detailed in the class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and its former leader, Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff.”
Several weeks ago, I suspended this blog, largely out of lingering psychic exhaustion after the completion and publication of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.
Since then, I have noticed that the problems I covered in the book have not been suspended. The ones most troubling to me include the appalling indifference–by public policymakers and by the society that elects them–toward the ongoing obscenity of throwing mentally ill young people into county jails, where many are deprived of essential medication, beaten by guards and inmates, and thrown senselessly into solitary confinement, a form of torture on a par with waterboarding. This obscenity is largely a factor of the massive bed shortages in our vanishing psychiatric hospitals–juicy targets for budget-cutting legislatures, and a problem that has not been adequately addressed since the catastrophe of deinstitutionalization.
Another problem–one that loomed suddenly while the book was in production, with the election of Donald Trump and the inexplicable wave of cruelty that has hardened amidst the Republican Congress, is the threat to the existence of Medicaid support for the seriously mentally ill along with many other categories of sufferers.
Yet another is the perceived softening of the National Alliance for Mental Illness–NAMI–in its outreach to the seriously mentally ill. The powerful activists Dj Jaffe, Janet Hayes (https://www.facebook.com/JanetHaysNOLA), Teresa Pasquini (https://www.facebook.com/teresa.pasquini.3), Lauren Rettagliatta (https://www.facebook.com/lauren.rettagliata), Mary Zdanowicz (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1296146654) (so many determined women! So few men!) and the nonpareil blogger Pete Earley (http://www.peteearley.com/blog/) have commented on this with varying degrees of concern. The common criticism is that NAMI is pulling away from outreach toward victims of serious mental illness–incurable brain afflictions transmitted through the genes–and concentrating its resources, and its funding opportunities, on a “big tent” approach that emphasizes “mental wellness,” or “mental health.” The plight of these sufferers, most but not all of whom fall under Freud’s term, “the worried well,” deserve outreach. But that outreach is being supplied by several other organizations formed specifically to answer their needs.
I share others’ concern and outrage over all these issues. What disturbs me most acutely these days is a recent surge in the brutalization, often fatal, of mentally ill young men at the hands of police and prison guards. I append a few links to these atrocities below.
I believe that this brutalization, fed largely by the twin jail/hospital crises mentioned above, is a stain on our national character, and that we must mobilize a movement to reform it.
As some visitors to the blog know, I speak as the father of two schizophrenic sons, one of whom took his life in 2005, and one of whom lives on with us in a condition of stability if not recovery. As awful, and as enduringly heartbreaking, as their fates, each was spared the dehumanizing horrors of falling into the criminal-justice system. In my surviving son’s one encounter with the police, in our hometown of Castleton, Vermont, the officer acted with tact, humanity, and restraint. I feel that it is my mission–exhausted and often in despair as I am over these ongoing crises, to do what I can to ignite the conscience of Americans and those whom they elect to protect and enhance society, especially its most helpless citizens.
(Okay, full confession: I just re-read that last sentence, and it sounds pompous as hell. Sue me!)
With this message, I will be ceasing new entries on this blog related to my book, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. I will leave the blog online for an indefinite period so that I might be of help for those of you looking for connections with others in the sub-universe of mental illness.
I thank the many people who have viewed and responded to my entries over these months. You have been thoughtful, brave, and generous with your responses and ideas regarding mental illness–your own, and those of people whom you love. And your kindhearted reactions to the music, photographs, and stories of and about my sons Dean and Kevin have warmed Honoree and me immeasurably. I hope that my essays and reportage about the scourge of mental illness has brought solace and encouragement.
I suggest that those of you seeking support and a safe place to share your stories will consider the private Facebook site Circle of Comfort and Assistance. Membership requires a sponsor, but I will be happy to consider sponsoring any of you who write to request it. I would like to thank my team of editors and publicists at Hachette, the publisher of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, for believing in my book and committing themselves full-out to its success.
I thank my blog administrator Beth Jones for her unfailingly prompt and professional work. And I thank my literary agent, Jim “Agent Jim” Hornfischer, for doing whatever it is that agents do. Seriously, Jim, you are a writer’s dream of an agent and a close friend. Without your encouragement and guidance, my book would never have happened.
The crisis in mental health care is rapidly becoming a featured topic of mainstream journalism.
CBS News has commendably chosen to spotlight this subject as the launch-point of its new experiment in long(er)-form video journalism, making use of its online digital resources. To quote from the network’s announcement: “
CBS Evening News Uncharted: State of Mind” is a new five-part digital series airing in May with new episodes released every Wednesday. The series will examine the state of mental health care in America in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. More than 43 million Americans suffer from mental illness.”
The first episode aired last night, and I repost it here. I was among the contributors, along with Congressman Tim Murphy, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and Dr. Glenda Wrenn, the psychiatrist and the director of behavioral health for the Satcher Health Leadership Institute.
Not surprisingly, the most compelling figure in this episode is an embattled mother: Rocky Schwartz, whose two sons are afflicted with chronic mental illness. (The National Alliance on Mental Illness has estimated that 60 percent of Americans suffering from mental illness don’t receive the care they need.)
Battles with un-cooperative health insurance companies have cost Ms. Schwartz and her husband more than $300,000, draining their retirement, college savings, home equity loans, and other personal savings.
The series was assembled by a young production team headed by the gifted and determined associate producer Roman Feeser. I am honored to have been a part of the first and some of the succeeding installments in this bellwether experiment in immersive journalism.
Here is another look into the frantic “sub-universe” of families whose lives have been deformed by the presence of mental illness. It is a story of what can happen to a patriotic veteran who returns home to find himself overwhelmed not only by psychotic tendencies, but also by the bumbling ineptitude and bureaucratic rigidity of hospitals–in particular, in this case, a Veterans Administration medical center in Ohio. The story is told by Kevin Landis’s devoted wife Nikki.
“I’m in that terrible place where I’m watching him fall apart, completely lost and separated from reality, and nobody seems to believe me.”
This is Nikki Landis speaking. Nikki Landis is a 37-year-old wife and mother of 16-year-old twins and three younger children. In her Facebook postings and in her communications with me, she comes across as a blithe spirit: bright, vital, endearing, fond of travel and books, an embracer of life, and devoted to her family.
“I’m married to the most amazing, intelligent, strong, caring man in the world,” she has told me.
And yet her marriage has pulled Nikki Landis into a grotesque and broken realm: a parallel universe that that entraps people at random and imprisons them in a morass of nightmarish cruelty and suffering, and muffles the sound of their voices when they try to call for help. It is a universe mostly invisible to the mass of “normal” people who brush against it every day, and yet one that diminishes the “normal” as well, in insidious ways they seldom notice or suspect.
It is the parallel universe of the mentally ill, and, too often, of the loving relatives who try to help them.
“Why does nobody listen?” Nikki Landis asks. “Why does everybody insist, ‘It will be OK’?”
Nikki’s husband Kevin, who’s 39, is in the grip of psychotic behavior. He has suffered psychotic episodes for the past ten years. None of the support or treatment systems designed to help people such as Kevin seem able to do anything for him. In Nikki’s view, no one cares.
“I don’t understand why it is so difficult after 10 years of this for people to understand that I’m not being dramatic or exaggerating. But these same people will question, two weeks from now, why I didn’t do more. Why I didn’t react differently. Why I didn’t say the right thing that could have stopped all of this.
“Even the doctors act oblivious. ‘Why didn’t you tell us he was doing this or that?’ they will say. And I do. I tell them, and nobody hears the words coming out of my mouth. Then somehow everyone finds a way to blame me.”
Adding to Nikki’s burdens is the fact that her twins suffer from autism.
Kevin was Nikki’s high-school crush in Germantown, Ohio (pop. 5547), but Kevin, two years ahead of her, didn’t notice. He joined the a police department after he graduated. Nikki went off to college. A day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Kevin showed up at the town recruitment center to enlist in the Army. After basic training, he was deployed to Kuwait as a machine gunner in February 2003 with the elite 101st Army Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles.” A month later he was in Iraq.
Near the city of Al Hillah in Babylon Province, Kevin’s company was ambushed. Enemy soldiers were firing at him from 30 feet away. “He can still feel the bullets zinging past his head,” Nikki told me. “A grenade rolled right past him.”
Somehow Kevin escaped injury—combat injury Other enemies were attacking him more subtly. Iraq is a sub-tropical region, and, like many combat troops in Iraq, he was issued a weekly dose of Mefloquine, a drug in tablet form that acts to prevent malaria transmitted by mosquito bites. Mefloquine can trigger side effects in some users, such as depression, severe anxiety, and psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia.
After his three-year tour was up, Kevin returned to Germantown, where he and Nikki began dating in 2006. Kevin resumed his career as a policeman in another department. The two were married a year later. They started their family. Along the way, Kevin began behaving erratically. Sometimes his words and behavior terrified the children, and his wife as well. The assumption at first was that the young veteran was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kevin has never been violent toward Nikki or the children. But his paranoia induced him to scream terrible things at his wife. “I’m the bad guy,” Nikki told me. “He shouts at me all of the things he wanted to scream at his parents thirty years ago. He mixes me up with his mom in his mind. He has left the house to live in his car more than a hundred times in the past ten years. Right now he is living at his parents’ house because I can’t do this anymore. I can’t watch.”
And, in Nikki’s view at least, the agencies of therapy and restoration have refused—or have been ill-equipped—to help Kevin, or her.
In April 2016, after years of resisting treatment, Kevin agreed to be examined at the Lindner Center of Hope, a leading private treatment center in Ohio. There, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder—one of the “family” of brain diseases that include schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.
The doctors prescribed Depakote, a sodium-based medication used to treat seizures and bipolarity, and the couple returned home. The Depakote worked well for a while, then began losing its efficacy. By October, Nikki said, her husband was out of control. He had been ramping up to a big dysphoric mania, and the second week of October he blew. He raged like I’d never seen. He was sweating so badly that he looked like he had just stepped out of the shower fully dressed. He was raging and panting and very scary. I knew he was suicidal.”
By now, Kevin was off the police department and out of work. The Landises, fearful that their medical plan would not cover inpatient stays (they later learned that it would) turned to the federal agency created precisely to protect and restore combat veterans such as Kevin Landis: young patriots who would not hesitate to risk their lives when their country was under attack. This was the Veterans Administration—specifically its medical center in Dayton, Ohio.
The couple had avoided the VA because they had heard the horror stories that reached scandal proportions just a few years ago: waiting periods so lengthy that some patients died before they could receive treatment (the average backlog at one point reached 115 days); falsified documents; negligent care. But now they felt they had no choice. At least Nikki did. She called upon a desperate tactic to persuade her husband. “I told him if he didn’t go to the hospital, I would have to divorce him. I’d said this before, but this time it worked.”
It turned out that the stories they’d heard about the VA were a little on the rosy side.
“The Veterans Administration has been nothing short of evil in helping him,” Nikki says. “worse than I can describe. I have a hard time talking about it still.”
Kevin Landis entered the VA hospital on a Friday night in late October and remained there for eighteen days. During that time, Nikki said, psychiatric doctors refused to allow Kevin to discuss his combat experiences in Iraq. Given that most combat veterans have to be coaxed and cajoled to break their silence about what happened to them—a necessary “first step” on the road to recovery—this doctor-enforced gag imposed on Kevin seems to defy reason.
As for his diagnosis of bipolar disorder from the private hospital, it cut no ice with the VA, Nikki told me. “The VA has a policy that they don’t accept outside diagnosis.”
(My online check of Nikki’s assertion led me to an NBC News story filed on May 22, 2012. It detailed the frustrations of a veteran of the Afghanistan war named Daniel Hibbard, and contained this passage: “Hibbard, who lives in Louisville, Ky., has been twice diagnosed at Veterans Affairs facilities with post-traumatic stress disorder since 2010. But something unexpected happened last month: Hibbard received a letter reversing his PTSD diagnosis. His new diagnosis, which was assigned without an in-person examination or assessment, is personality disorder.”)
(“‘It makes me feel like I’m being called a fraud, a fake,’ Hibbard said of the diagnosis. ‘You might as well go ahead and burn my record and say I was never in the military.’”)
On the following Tuesday morning, Nikki received shocking news. “The doctor met with him for about ten minutes. He was in a paranoid state and told her that I had been researching bipolarity for years, and had a shelf full of bipolar books so that I could convince doctors he was bipolar and drug him up to control him and ruin his career.”
Kevin swore to his wife that he didn’t say this. “But to be honest, he very well may have.” Whatever the case, “she ‘undiagnosed’ him. She then spent days defending her actions, refusing to look at his chart from his outpatient doctor, and accusing me of terrible things.”
Nikki sensed that something was not right. “A nurse told me that this doctor went out of her way to make sure patients were labeled ‘malingerers’ so that they couldn’t get VA benefits. This doctor started saying he didn’t have PTSD or bipolar; he had a ‘personality disorder.’ On his chart she wrote that she believed both of his parents had personality disorders (she never met either one), and that I had a personality disorder as well.
“I googled ‘VA’ and ‘personality disorder’ and learned that there had been several VA scandals in which doctors were told to diagnose mentally ill veterans with personality disorders. If the VA says you have a personality disorder, it disqualifies you from VA benefits for mental health. When I brought this up to her, she accused me of being paranoid. And she wrote in his chart that he was doing all of this for money, and that his police pension would be big. In fact, Kevin just got approved for his police pension on Wednesday and it puts us below the poverty line.”
“In the end,” said Nikki of the doctor, “she sent him home on Effexor, which is one of the worst possible drugs for bipolar. It took four months and two more hospitalizations to detox him from the Effexor.
“It’s so hard for me to think about that time, how he was treated, the phone calls I got when he was crying, him not even knowing where he was or how long he’d been there. And the doctor treating both of us the way she did. It was exhausting and emotional, and just devastating. My kids saw me crying, my kids missed their dad, and my 8-year-old son said, “Mom, I’ll never be in the Army because they make the men fight and then don’t take care of them.”
Nikki Landis’s love and support for her troubled husband has never wavered. She does not deviate from her insistence that she is married to the most amazing, intelligent, strong, caring man in the world.
“But sometimes that man goes away. His body is there, but his ability to laugh, to be kind, to care—it’s gone. His ability to know who I am—it’s gone.
“His own kids don’t recognize him, and say things like, ‘Why is dad laughing so much when nothing is funny?’ Or, ‘Why does Dad think bad things about you?’ Or, ‘Dad doesn’t look like my dad.’ It’s heartbreaking. Literally, you feel the pain physically inside and it doesn’t go away.
“He hates me right now. It’s not the first time, but it never gets easier. And sometimes I hate him too. I hate the sick him, the illness that convinces him that I am hurting him or out to get him. I hate the part of him that can’t fight back.
“I’m pretty sure we are headed for another hospitalization but our insurance runs out in 20 days. I don’t know what I will do then. I’ve applied for Medicaid and we haven’t heard a word.
“It’s very lonely. I’m only 37. I loved to travel and explore and LIVE! I’m a fly-by-night, wild child, creative type, earthy sort of person. Kevin was the down to earth responsible one. I’m not cut out for this, but I’m doing the best I can. Most of all I miss my husband. My kids miss their dad.”
In January of this year, thanks to a generous extension of Kevin’s insurance coverage by a former police chief, the couple was able to return to the private hospital for a new diagnosis.
The psychiatric doctors found that Kevin was now suffering from schizoaffective disorder—the worst known variant of schizophrenia, combining this disease’s symptoms with the added ingredient of paranoia.
At this writing, the Landises are awaiting a hearing with the state agency that handles his disability pension. It has been postponed a time or two. Meanwhile, Kevin is on meds. Some sorts of meds.
On April 23, Nikki emailed me:
“He woke up today just fine. Completely the old Kevin. I won’t hold my breath, but I pray it lasts a few days. I cling to these brief respites.”
This horrific story, originally reported by the excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and picked up by Slate a couple days ago, is yet another demonstration of my assertion in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE that “too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Terrill Thomas’s death by slow, deliberate, guard-induced dehydration while in solitary confinement at a Milwaukee County jail is an abomination, and a part of a larger national abomination. Our society must demand an end to solitary confinement!
Today I introduce a new, occasional feature to my blog. Please see below:
Voices from the Mental Illness Sub-Nation
Near the beginning of my recently published book about mental illness, “No One Cares About Crazy People,” I write: Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”
I grew convinced of this over the three years of my research into schizophrenia and its related brain afflictions that include schizoaffective disorder and extreme bipolarity. My examples in the book cover the spectrum of atrocity: mis-diagnoses (often “drug overdose”) by doctors; judges who order young victims into jail instead of treatment centers; beatings, deprivation of medications, and the torture of solitary confinement behind bars; death on the streets from bullets fired by untrained police; the daily fog and helplessness of the untreated insane.
These and some other areas—arenas—pretty much covered it, I was convinced. The spectrum of atrocity suffered by the mentally ill in America.
I was wrong.
I had limited my investigations to the barbarities visited on the “crazy people” themselves. Only after the book’s publication in March did a companion realm swim into focus for me: the realm of ordinary people whose lot is to care for the afflicted. These include mothers, fathers, siblings and friends of the helplessly impaired thousands whom our social bureaucracies have neglected and rejected and crushed. In many ways, these family members are damaged and abject as the loved ones they seek in vain to rescue.
No one cares, to coin a phrase, about those who care about crazy people.
This realm rushed at me in emails to my Facebook page and to the blog I created that related to the book. It swelled up within certain websites that I, as a writer about mental illness, was invited to join. These sites are closed off to anyone but relatives of madpeople; an enforced set of agreements keeps their conversations private unless they grant specific permission.
The writers on these sites are almost exclusively mothers—a fact that in itself merits contemplation. Mostly middle-class, they span several income, educational and racial categories. They are seldom “natural” writers, yet no one could mistake what they have to say. They write with the rare pitch of truth-telling passion that James Agee memorably described as “the cruel radiance of what is.”
What they have in common is a collective story more urgent, more morally devastating, more viscerally real, than be expressed by the modes by which outsiders receive information about mental healthcare: statistics and news items and policy statements and political press releases, delivered in detached, passionless prose.
Today, this blog commences an occasional compilation of these mothers’ voices (and those of other relatives as they are available). I have obtained permission from each source quoted, and have withheld identities, although some gave permission for that as well.
My hope here is twofold. One is that the reader will feel the same emotions as I have: shock and indignation that such chaos and neglect exist in America’s mental health-care systems, causing such a vast archipelago of misery and terror. The other is that these voices will encourage others to throw off fears of stigma and shame and begin hurling their own voices, their own testimonies, into the world. Only by putting human faces and voices upon the statistical morass of this ongoing atrocity can we hope to begin decisive, lasting reform.
We will begin with an example of the commonplace indifference and buck-passing at the community level that makes a mockery of the very phrase “mental healthcare system.”
“I have only enough strength this morning for a few lines. [My daughter] was discharged in 2011 with no psychiatric follow up appt. We scrambled to find someone, but before we could, she was readmitted to a second hospitalization. She had to drop out of school for a second time. She was too far behind. The [caregiver] had put her on a drug that literally made her bang her head on the wall. Then she was hospitalized another two weeks, and upon discharge the social worker made no referrals or linkages for her in the community, and would not respond to my inquiry about her diagnosis. I asked and her response was, ‘What does that matter?’
“She came home with us, and for the next two months, it was awful. In February, she was psychotic again, and ran out of the emergency room when I tried to get an evaluation. She was noncompliant with meds, and thought she was pregnant. She spent two weeks in one hospital and I threw a fit about her being sent home to us again because I had a 14-year-old at home to protect. She had become physically aggressive as well. They sent her to a state hospital after my totally pissing them off, and she stayed there for two months.
“My biggest frustration is no linkages, no follow-up, no support, etc. We were treated like nosy people wanting to meddle in our child’s life but, she was sent home to me to deal with every time. And, each and every time, I felt more inadequate to help her and to protect my other child. [Her sister] was terrorized and slept with her bedroom door locked. She also became angry with me, her mom, for not being able to protect her from her sister.”
Sometimes the afflicted family member is not a child, but a parent. Whether or not that parent has consented to treatment—and often they have not—the strain suffered by the spouse and children can be overwhelming. This eloquently written post offers an example:
“I must say that helping my kids to navigate their life in relation to their Daddy’s serious mental illness is serious emotional work. Tonight I held my 10 year old ‘Baby’ girl as she opened up and told me that sometimes she just starts feeling sad and then ALL of her sadness comes over her at once. I held her as she sobbed and sobbed. ‘Why can’t we have a normal family?’ ‘Why can’t we live in our own house where I could have my own room?’ ‘Why did my Daddy have to get sick?’ ‘Will it ever be okay?’ ‘Why can’t the doctors just fix this?”
“I want to know too.
“She voiced the little girl version of the questions that claw at my own heart and mind. The grief and loss come at us in waves. Tonight we sat and cried together. Her tears streaming down my chest and mine in her hair. . .”
The mother below and her son are casualties of grotesque, yet pervasive laws that place the “civil rights” interests of a person in psychosis above the right of a doctor or psychiatrist to order antipsychotic medication and/or involuntary commitment to a center for treatment. In most states, such a patient may be treated against his will only if he “demonstrates a danger to himself or others.” Given that virtually the only way to “demonstrate” such a danger is to enact it, this misbegotten law often has the effect of pushing psychotic young people into criminality.
“When my grandson was 11, we begged for help to keep him safe and out of trouble. Several psychiatrists later and many tears and meds for him, we were told: wait till he gets in trouble with the law. Then he will get help. His school told us the same thing. No one understood that what they were telling us was our fear!! We didn’t want this sweet soul of a kid getting into trouble with the police! We were not that kind of family, he was not that kind of kid! We were not going to let that happen! We would fight, pray, restrict him, take him to every doctor we could find. . .
“When mental illness takes hold of our kids we have no control. Mental illness wins over and over again. He is now 20 and hanging with some more worldly friends, friends whose families must have said and fought for the very same things. We must fight and tell the world how our kids didn’t have a chance. They did not pray for mental illness any more than one would pray for cancer. We need to fight for hospital beds in which to keep our kids safe. Our kids need to be able to have safe places to live, affordable meds, support and understanding of their illness. God hear my prayer!!!”
From this message, and others, it is clear that not even psychiatric doctors can be automatically trusted to have the competence and temperament necessary to help their patients.
“A bad day at the doctors. Our city had to basically shut down [its psychiatric care center] because of diverted funds, but after waiting a year, my loved one got an appointment, which was today. In the past year, we had seen a private psychiatrist who didn’t [ participate in my state’s Medicaid program], but would prescribe anti-anxiety meds to help [forestall involuntary confinement]. But she would no longer see him.
“The appointment started off badly as this new doctor called for security before my son even went into the office—possibly because of [troubling] paperwork he had filled out or because of his unusual look. In any case, the security thing set him off more than usual and the doctor made him leave and he is not allowed to return. I listened to the usual four-letter tirade all the way home, my son saying he would never go to another doctor again and don’t ever ask him to. He got out of the car before I came to a full stop at the house. I am so not looking forward to what will happen tonight. De-escalation armor on.”
And then there is the judicial system. As with psychiatrists and doctors, judges are commonly assumed (by outsiders and families of the afflicted alike) to be specifically educated in the neuroscience of chronic mental illness. They are assumed to recognize their moral duty to proceed with exceptional care and knowledge in adjudicating the fate of the most helpless people on earth. Doctors and jailers, of course, are bound by the same expectations.
A special test of that duty is their understanding—or lack of it—of the fact that the single most destructive action against a mentally ill inmate (in fact, against any inmate) solitary confinement, which quickly trigger and/or deepen psychosis.
Judging by the content of this mother’s message, her schizophrenic son has been failed by everyone in this chain. Both he and his mother have paid the price.
“My son’s court case is tomorrow. What’s tragic is the fact I begged for help since November 1. I faxed over a Do Not Release letter stating he was a serious harm to himself and me. Now, my son has spent three months in jail and has been allowed to deny all medications. My son suffers from anosognosia [a clinical term meaning “lack of insight into one’s mental illness”]. So, tomorrow, he learns the painful truth that his competency evaluation came back not competent to proceed.
“My son believes he aced [his mental competency test] and is coming home to me. But the doctor found him incompetent. No shocker there! If they had only listened to me back on November 1, he wouldn’t have had to spend three months and counting in jail! Plus, I wouldn’t have been severely beaten and cornered in my own bathroom [by him] for a second time. Now, my severely delusional child has been off all medication for a month. Talk about starting from ground zero!
“What he will experience tomorrow will be criminal. He will learn he’s incompetent, while wearing shackles and handcuffs. I fucking hate our system!!! He doesn’t understand his illness. His rights will be taken away. He will suffer from the phases of grief even though it is he who is lost to us. He will be left in a jail cell awaiting placement in the state hospital, which could take one to three months because the waiting list is so long.
“I begged with my son to call Disability Rights to represent him but he said he didn’t have a disability even though he’s received Disability for 5 years! What’s even more fucked up is that Disability Rights said they could only talk to my seriously delusional child. That is why he had to call! What a joke! I know so many parents who have lost their children with a serious mental illness in jail. So, please pray and send out positive messages into theuniverse that he makes it through, and finally receives the help he deserves!
This mother’s son was a small and thin 17-year-old, when local police arrested him for trespassing. The mother writes that, in a psychotic state, he had wandered into a neighbor’s house and fell asleep on a couch. The neighbors called police, and who, instead of taking him to a care facility, put him in jail. The mother has repeatedly called for compassion and treatment for him; so far, her calls have been ignored.
“Today is another day. It’s so hard to move forward with my life. We are stuck in this insane limbo. My son called today [from jail], and says mommy, ‘the inmates that hand out the trays they took most of the food off my tray. The guards were standing there. They said I have to pay a debt. They say I have to pay them if I want to eat. Put money in [X]’s commissary Account so I can eat.’ Over the past month, our son was in solitary confinement for almost two weeks. They stopped his antipsychotics cold for four days. He has psychosis, and is hearing voices. After the assault [by inmates] two weeks ago, he has a concussion.
“He’s been denied an MRI, or an emergency-room visit, despite my pleas. His vision is blurry, headaches, and nausea. He is emotional from the head injury. They will not wake him for his morning antidepressants. Now tonight he has informed us they are trying to extort money by starving him. So he was crying again tonight. We hope next month he sees the forensic psychiatrist.
“[The jailers] extort money for visits, commissary, basic necessities, phone calls, fees, per-day jail incarceration fees, fines, restitution, medicines, doctor fees, etc. Our son was charged as an adult at 17. The boy who dances like Michael Jackson, and plays 5 instruments. He hears voices. He has auditory hallucinations, and Asperger’s. Fifteen times, I tried to hospitalize him. Instead He went to jail where he spent weeks at a time in solitary confinement. He was beat up, his vision is still affected. He still had not had an mri.,. Tonight he sits in jail at just 18. He is not a hardened criminal. He’s a good, sweet kid, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Every day I pray he will come out of this alive. My heart is shattered!
Here is another example of solitary confinement used as a blunt instrument—to effectively punish the victim of a jail beating.
“I just got off the phone with my son. He was beaten up two weeks ago [by inmates], and the jail’s answer was to put him in lockdown [solitary confinement] for 23 hours a day by himself. I had him agreeing to meds but they gave him the wrong meds and now he won’t trust them. He has been in the county jail for six months, and finally saw a judge for the first time last week. Now they need six weeks’ revaluation. Meanwhile, they keep him alone in lock up. He can call me on his hour out. He just called screaming and crying to get him out. I can only tell him he needs to hang in there and we are doing the best we can. But he’s slipping more. And nobody in the courts seems to care. My heart is breaking. His birthday is Wednesday. I am a single parent, and he’s my youngest.”
And here is another example of the foolish inadequacy of “danger to himself or others.” Given that virtually the only way to “demonstrate” such a danger is to enact it, the law generally does more harm than good.
“The doctor told me, “‘Wait, N—, he’s not bad enough yet, he hasn’t committed a crime!’ [And then he said], ‘Your son is an adult. He has the right to be crazy if he chooses.’
My son has slipped through the cracks in every instance. There’s no consideration for families living with an untreated psychotic person except when it’s too late. We live in fear of our own son.”