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John’s Story: Post-1960s, Parents Struggle to Hospitalize Mentally Ill Children

Each time I hear of an Aaron Alexis-like rampage, I fear it's my son whom we could never get committed.

by
Patrick Richardson

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September 21, 2013 - 12:00 am
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When word came that Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter, was severely mentally ill, my heart fell. I’d had nothing but anger in my heart for Alexis before that, but revelations that he was hearing voices and had sought help left me desolate in a way which is hard to describe.

You see, that could have been my son.

Every time word of another deranged person opening fire makes its way through the media, I fear that could be my boy. My youngest son, I’ll call him “John,” is severely mentally ill. The ordeal began a few years before I came into his (and my wife’s) life. John was diagnosed at the very young age of five with Bipolar Disorder I and ADHD. He would run away from home at 18 months, once making his way across the street to a nursing home, only to be brought home by a resident. He would stand in the street with a car coming right at him and laugh, and have to be rescued.

When I came into his life in early 2000, John was 6 years old and was already on heavy doses of Dexedrine. We tried everything. When he was manic, which was often, John was uncontrollable. He would giggle in a way that was anything but cute — it was frightening. He would hear voices, frogs would talk to him, he would see angels — “but not nice ones, mommy” — and they would fly into his mouth. He would lie to his teachers, causing more than one uncomfortable phone call.

Every year, we would face the same uphill battle with the school, trying to get them to see that John needed help. That we needed help. The doctors prescribed more and more medication. At one point he was on six different drugs, including heavy doses of the antipsychotic Zyprexa.

He threatened his elder brother with a knife.

We entered him into an after-school and summer program for students like him with behavioral issues. We used behavior modification plans at home, and got him an IEP and into special ed.

In junior high, we had a teacher call to complain that he was drooling in class. His temper was volcanic. He broke things. We know now those are called “bipolar rages,” and they’re terrifying. Fortunately, we had a new doctor whose response to new behaviors was not to add medication. He got John off much of the medication he was on, bringing him down to just two. John’s focus improved.

But his behavior got worse.

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Top Rated Comments   
jlw, I have not posted private details. Anyone who knows our family knows most of these details.

Moreover, why are you not responding directly to the issues raised? Your argument (if it can even be dignified as such) is a red herring at best.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
If the only way to get appropriate help for a severe mental disorder it to commit a felony, then we have a problem.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
One of the living hells that truly kills your soul is what you describe of your son. I want to commend you for keeping your sanity and trying to help him. Raising children isn't easy even when they are not suffering from mental illness and raging hormones.

47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (47)
All Comments   (47)
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Our mental health system needs reform NOW. Stories like this are far too common,
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for sharing this. A lot of people have no idea of the difficulties involved with raising a bipolar child, and the larger set of problems of the decision to destroy the state mental hospital system in the 1960s and 1970s. I have gone through it with my older brother [http://www.amazon.com/My-Brother-Ron-Deinstitutionalization-ebook/dp/B008E0LRQE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1379881432&sr=8-1&keywords=My+Brother+Ron], and with a bipolar daughter who, fortunately, we were able to get treated at 15. She finished high school, her bachelor's and master's degrees, married a great guy, and now works for Child Protective Services. But there was a time when I wondered if she would live to adulthood.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I feel your pain, truly. My younger brother has been mentally ill since his teenage years (possibly earlier, as my mother always called him a "difficult child"). For many years, every time I heard or read of a mass killing, I prayed he was not the killer. He even threatened to kill me and my family at one time. Our mother tried to keep him out of trouble, and even tried to get him committed once after a violent act, but she couldn't afford the thousands of dollars that would have required. After her death, he was left on his own (at age 27) and has spent most of his life homeless and jobless. He's now in his late fifties and will most likely die on the streets, just another statistic.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mr. Richardson thank you for sharing your obviously difficult situation with your son.

My wife was up until recently a mild-moderate learning disorder teacher for Jr High-HS aged kids. Whereas her mother with more than 30 years experience as a severe mental disorder teacher for elementary aged kids, they have seen and had many 'Johns' in their classrooms.

What's frustrating for them & I'm merely a 3rd party person is the severe teachers TRY as well to get their very difficult children into a state-run facility. Sadly It's nearly impossible.

I commend you & your wife trying to help 'John'. For often times the parents of these children are meth/ former meth/ drug addicts. Too lethargic or believe the child's school/ teacher(s) should raise their kid(s) etc.,

A sad, unending cycle.

Best of luck with your adoption possibility & God Bless.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I just saw a HS classmate lounging in the sun with other homeless. I called his name and he looked at me with a mixture of hatred, embarrassment, and insanity. (We were in antagonistic ethnic HS groups.) He told me that he did not have time for me, that he was busy. As I am not the same ahola I was in HS, I wished him well and walked on. Nevertheless there are many people like him walking the streets who are waiting to snap. They are tired, malnourishd, drug addicted, and not taking their medicine. I am a small gubmint guy, but we should have camps for these people where they do not bother anybody. It is intimidating for older ladies to pass by 50 crusty guys lounging in the sun as they walk to the public library. The state give them a residential hotel and $400/ month and all the do is lounge around in front of the library.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Milwaukee Journal has been running a series on a mom's quest to get her son long-term care. It's a major battle, even when all the mental health and social workers she's working with agree he needs care.

http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/chronic-crisis-a-system-that-doesnt-heal-milwaukee-county-mental-health-system-210480011.html#!/quest-for-care/
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
And Wisconsin is one of the better states for involuntary treatment now.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mr Richardson,
This must have been a gut-wrenching article to write. I have two special needs children, and though one has social challenges and the other cognitive impairments neither of them is disturbed. I address their issues as they arise. Whenever I get a student intern who does a pre-exam/interview before the specialist at our local teaching hospital, invariably I get a request for the "full medical history." I do my best to comply, and the resultant narrative leaves me exhausted and emotionally drained. So thank you for writing this. It is an important story, a personal illustration of a situation where every available avenue has been attempted and exhausted, leading to the conclusion that there is no viable solution in the state that our society chooses to structure itself today.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I can understand your concern. Supervising someone who is mentally ill is exhausting. There should be some sort of respite care for concerned adults....and for siblings. As a teacher, I have seen the other side of the situation: parents who will not acknowledge the child has problems School budgets for psychologists and mental health workers should be greatly increased as should special teachers and "classrooms" I know the system for which I worked was faced with greatly increasing numbers of pre-schoolers(mentally and physically handicapped) and I imagine the same could be said for children with mental health problems. One would think recent situations involving mass shootings by people who were mentally disturbed would make this obvious. Something MUST be done about privacy issues. Schools should not face lawsuits frrom both the families of the children or their classmates. The federal government mandates that every child be educated and it should contribute a lot more money for that. I know of situations where I feel money is wasted..ie. sending a child by taxi to an appropriate school. Mainstreaming may make someone feel better but I don't think overall education is improved. An average or borderline child who sits next to a mainstreamed child and his/her aide and spends an hour cutting up tiny pieces of paper is resentful...and I have personally witnessed that.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
" Mainstreaming may make someone feel better but I don't think overall education is improved. "

It's all part of the "equality" mantra. Everybody must be the same, have the same, do the same. Only then will we all be "equal".

But we are not equal in that sense, and never will be. Nor would it be a good thing even if it could be made so.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Mainstreaming may make someone feel better but I don't think overall education is improved."

Good point, donnaquixote. My girlfriend teaches in a public school system, and has many horror stories of how disruptive the students with "special needs" are when they are mainstreamed in classes with normal students. Many of the normal students want to learn, but they can hardly pay attention to the teacher because of how the "special" students act up. I have heard many similar anecdotes from other people in schools.

In the particular district where my girlfriend teaches, another part of the problem seems to be an extreme over-emphasis on STEM topics, and reducing the evaluation of each child's progress to some form of data, mostly gotten from standardized tests. And when you have the federal and state governments more closely involved, as they are now, all kinds of bad things happen.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
jlw and discojer are 2 examples that show some of the problems we face in dealing with the mentally problematic ppl. Having had to live with a parent that had mental problems, one child that had "authority" problems, and now grand children with mental problems, I'v become quite accustomed to stupid responses about such issues. I'v also watched the PC fools destroy the system that was in place, even tho it needed some "fixing" it was better than what exists now. Yes, blame the parent is often the first out of the cute cure for some of these issues. Patrick, keep your chin up, as your son may still need you to be there fore him in the future, and good luck!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"...even tho it needed some "fixing" it was better than what exists now"

I agree with you, GYMMIE. I interviewed several people who lived as children in a county "Children's Home," or orphanage. This home operated from the 1880's to 1975. The quality of care which the children received varied, depending to a large extent on the quality of the staff and the oversight of county officials. But based on testimony from former residents and the reports of official "boards of visitors" and local media, the children were well-treated during much of the history of the institution. Some of these children were in the home because one or both parents had died. Many of the children came from broken homes or other families in which the parent or parents had trouble handling the responsibility of raising the child. Other children came from abusive homes.

All of the former residents who lived in the home from the 1920's to the early 1960's agreed that the care which they received was good overall, with strict but fair discipline, ample food, clothing and shelter, with staff who cared and showed an interest in them, and with opportunities for education, learning of work skills and getting spiritual guidance . One woman who was in the Home during the late-1950's and early-1960's stated that by going to the Home, she was saved from a foster-home situation in which she was brutally treated, and she was very grateful for the Home. The details of her treatment in the foster home would make you lose your appetite for the whole day.

During the mid-1960's, some corruption crept into the local county government, and this effected the operation of this Children's Home. The quality of the staff declined, and there was less oversight. Major abuse occurred, perpetrated by staff and by older children. The Sexual Revolution and other cultural influences of the time also had a big effect. Finally word got out to the local juvenile court judge and the newspapers about what was going on inside the Home, and it was shut down. Sadly, though, many children then went into foster homes, where they encountered treatment that was equally bad or even worse.

Its true that there were sometimes major problems in some of the old mental institutions and orphanages. But when those institutions were run well, with good judicial oversight, they often operated better than the alternatives.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Your story is heart-rending. I used to volunteer at a school for emotionally disturbed boys. Some were victims of abuse and neglect, but psycho-biologically more or less normal. They could be helped by intensive therapy, a safe and nurturing environment, good nutrition, academic remediation, and a strong physical education program. Other boys were not psycho-biologically normal. To keep behavior from becoming dangerous, these boys were filled so full of pills that they practically rattled when they walked. The drugs kept them from having psychotic episodes, usually, but made the boys so woozy that academic and social development was almost impossible. We are in the Dark Ages still when it comes to understanding and treating psycho-biological disorders. Leaving people to die of exposure on the streets, or cramming them into prisons, is totally inhumane. We need to be able to hospitalize people on a long term basis, even permanently. We also need a crash program in medical R&D to learn more about these disorders and develop better treatments. Disarming the law abiding population won't help prevent mass shootings by psychotic individuals, since it's easy to purchase illegal firearms.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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