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A mother’s story of why mental illness ‘should never be a crime’

December 20, 2019


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mental illness can, of course,
be a very difficult both for patients and their families. In a special episode of Brief But Spectacular,
Jerri Clark, the founder of the group Mothers of the Mentally Ill, tells the story of her
son, who failed to receive adequate support after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. JERRI CLARK, Founder, Mothers of the Mentally
Ill: My son Calvin is 22. He was very smart from a very young age. In high school, he got hooked into the speech
and debate club, and immediately started winning awards. He was also really athletic. And we were so proud of him. During my son’s freshman year of college,
he was very confused, so we took him home, and he was talking and talking and talking
in circles, when it suddenly occurred to me that this was probably mental illness. He was running around the house, and he became
very concerned that our downstairs bathroom had been possessed. He did some kind of ceremony in there. He closed the door and asked me to never,
ever go in that room again because it wasn’t safe. And that’s when I knew we were in real trouble. My husband got a call that my son had been
found by highway patrol on the side of the highway, and he wasn’t making much sense. My son said he thought the car would run off
of his own energy. Drugs were suspected, so the officer took
my son to a hospital for a drug test. Because he lashed out at the security guards
at the hospital, he was determined to be a danger to others, and so he was detained under
the Involuntary Treatment Act. In the state of Washington — and this is
true in most of the states of the country — an individual in a mental illness crisis
has to meet the criteria of imminent threat. While he was there, the initial hearing for
his DUI charge came up. And so I called the courthouse and said, he
won’t be able to attend that hearing because he’s being detained. The court said that an arraignment for a DUI
charge was non-negotiable and that a bench warrant would automatically be issued for
his arrest. Within a day of leaving that two-week hospitalization,
he was as psychotic and manic as he had been before he went into the hospital. I called the county crisis office, and explained
that I feared for my son’s safety. And I said I can’t call the police because
there’s a bench warrant for his arrest. They said, call the police. Go ahead, and let him get arrested, and then
we will get him some help. They took him to jail and booked him on the
bench warrant. And I immediately started calling to try to
figure out how they were going to now divert him into the hospital, as crisis had explained. There was no legal pathway to do that. I had been misled. The next time I saw my son, he was on a video
monitor from jail. I could tell by his eyes that my son was out
of his mind. He was in a suicide vest, and he had a black
eye and a fat lip. And he was talking in a robotic voice that
sounded almost like a computer. It wasn’t my son. He came out of the system much sicker. Up until that time, we had been terribly afraid
for our son. During that time, we became afraid of our
son. He came and banged on the door. He pushed past me and locked me and my husband
out of our house. I believed that my son had finally met the
threshold for involuntary treatment. So, I called 911, and said we had a medical
emergency. And the police officer who talked to me sneered
at me and said, “Your son will not be taken into care for a nonexistent mental health
condition.” I got a call the next morning from police,
who had found him in the middle of the street wandering in traffic, and he said he was going
to kill himself by lighting himself on fire. He finally met the illusive threshold of the
Involuntary Treatment Act, and he was taken to a hospital. But Washington state didn’t have any beds,
so the ambulance took him across the river into Portland, Oregon. But, after five days, my son no longer met
the threshold of imminent threat. So, they put him in a cab, and dropped him
off at a homeless shelter. My son spent one night in that homeless shelter,
got up the next morning, and jumped off the highway bridge into the Columbia River to
kill himself. My son is a really good swimmer, and he told
me later that, when he hit the water, he realized that it had been a mistake and that he had
other things to do in this life. One week after my son was dumped at a homeless
shelter by a mental hospital, he was arrested. I was deeply afraid for his safety, because
I knew that he would be suicidal. The director of the jail was kind to me and
connected me to the director of psychiatric services. The social worker, who is working through
the public defender’s office, was able to arrange a release plan for my son that includes
housing and wraparound support. They are enthusiastic, encouraging, and amazing
supports to my son. And they assertively help him with putting
his life back together. My son right now is doing amazing, and I’m
so proud of him, because he wants to make his life work and he wants to make his life
meaningful. My name is Jerri Clark, and this is my Brief
But Spectacular take on why mental illness should never be a crime. JUDY WOODRUFF: We are so grateful for your
story, Jerri Clark. Tonight’s Brief But Spectacular was produced
in collaboration with Olympia, Washington-based political reporter Austin Jenkins of the Northwest
News Network. You can find a bonus episode with Jenkins
on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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