Jean did not delay taking her thirty-year-old son, Keith, a Medicaid patient, to a prestigious teaching hospital’s emergency room when he began experiencing heart attack symptoms. Jean, a lawyer, is the legal guardian of Keith, who lives with schizoaffective disorder that was diagnosed at age twenty. Jean knew Keith was likely experiencing a panic attack and the symptoms she was most concerned about were those of a mental illness relapse. Advocates like Jean, who have watched their loved one’s illness unfold, are intimately familiar with subtle and sometimes frightening warning signs of mental health relapse and what signifies the urgent need for an ER visit and hospital admission. On that day, Keith’s concerning symptoms included elevated mood, obsessive need to clean, racing heartbeat, and the most critical of all, incoherent speech.
Up until that ER visit, Keith had been managing his illness successfully for nearly four years with medication, therapy, sobriety and the support of his parents and loved ones. A recent college graduate, Keith teaches advanced math to high school students at an after-school clinic. He was recently promoted and had plans to move from his parents’ house into an apartment with a roommate. Stress can trigger a critical health event for those who live with chronic mental illness and Jean believes his increased responsibilities possibly caused his relapse.
The doctor quickly ruled out cardiac arrest but never addressed the mental health symptoms despite Keith’s health history, the information his mother provided, or the fact that Keith is treated at the same hospital for his schizoaffective disorder.
Upon meeting the ER doctor, Jean detailed her son’s mental health symptoms she observed and knew to be concerning and his correlating health history. But the ER doctor focused on Keith’s cardiac symptoms, asking an incoherent Keith to explain how his heart felt. The doctor quickly ruled out cardiac arrest but never addressed the mental health symptoms despite Keith’s health history, the information his mother provided or the fact that Keith is treated at that same hospital for his schizoaffective disorder. “The ER doctor couldn’t write the discharge order fast enough,” Jean says. She laments the breakdown in what should be an integrated health system, one that includes protocols in which doctors are trained to address physical and mental health symptoms.
Jean recognized Keith’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and his ER discharge meant the opportunity to get him committed for treatment in the hospital was denied. Jean then called Keith’s psychiatrist, who was on vacation, and left a message for the on-call doctor. Several hours passed before she received a return call. In the meantime, Jean also had left a message on the answering service at the clinic where her son is treated.
When her call was finally returned, the usual and important question was asked: “Is he suicidal? Is he homicidal?” Keith was not expressing suicidal ideation though he was incoherent and clearly exhibiting signs of psychosis. But Keith does have a history of hearing command voices—voices that instruct him to do dangerous, impulsive acts. Jean explained, “No, he’s not saying he’s going to kill himself. But his thinking is becoming more convoluted and his mood is more elevated.” Despite Keith’s history, he did not meet criteria for being at risk for self-harm or harming others and therefore Jean was informed, “Have him call us tomorrow and get an appointment at the clinic.”
Jean was finally able to make an appointment for Keith early the following morning and prepared for a long night of vigilance, which was especially worrisome since her husband was away on business. Knowing Keith’s history of psychotic thinking, especially that he experiences frightening command voices, scares Jean. She would need to check on him frequently throughout the night.
Jean recalls, “The rest is a blur. About 1:30 am, I saw blood in the hallway. I banged down the bathroom door and stopped the bleeding as best I could. I called 911 and got help from my neighbors who are nurses. Before I knew it, Keith was in the first of two surgeries.”
Keith will survive but it will be a long recovery process, both physically and mentally. He told his family he wants to live, get well, and return to work. He tells his parents he had no plan to kill himself. Keith has no memory of that night. “I don’t know why I did it,” he says.
Keith’s psychosis involved hearing voices commanding him to act, nearly resulting in his own death. His act, unlike a conventional suicide attempt in which the intent is a conscious and often planned effort to end one’s own life, was unplanned and impulsive. Keith’s brain was very ill, requiring urgent treatment to stabilize disordered thinking and keep him and others safe. Had Jean been successful in getting Keith hospitalized, he could have been protected from this impulsive act that will now require a longer recovery than had he been committed to treatment merely one day earlier.
Discouragingly, these types of experiences are not anomalies. Like most mental health advocates, best selling author, Pete Earley, became frustrated by the confusing and oft enervating mental health system when his son became ill. Earley’s very informative book, Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, explores the healthcare and criminal justice system for those living with mental illness and for their advocates navigating the health and justice system. In Crazy, Earley tells a story of his frustrating effort to commit his son, Mike, whose mental health was deteriorating:
The doctor said: “Virginia law is very specific. Unless a patient is in imminent danger to himself or others, I cannot treat him unless he voluntarily agrees to be treated.” Before I could reply, he asked Mike: “Will you take medicines if I offer them to you?”
“No, I don’t believe in our poisons,” Mike said. “Can I leave now?”
“Yes,” the doctor answered without consulting me. Mike jumped off the patient’s table and hurried out the door. I started after him, but stopped and decided to try one last time to reason with the doctor.
“My son’s bipolar, he’s off his meds, he has a history of psychotic behavior. You’ve got to do something! He’s sick! Help him, please!”
He said: “Your son is an adult and while he is clearly acting odd, he has a right under the law to refuse treatment.”
“Then you take him home with you tonight!” I exclaimed.
Mental health professionals are required to follow the criteria established for hospital admission. This criteria and HIPAA privacy laws restrict providers, often resulting in sub-par care and tragic consequences for people who live with mental illness. Advocates, mental healthcare providers and patients are frustrated with these laws and protocols that quite simply are more often harmful than helpful.
No good comes from an untreated illness and after leaving the ER, Earley’s son was arrested and incarcerated for trespassing. Fortunately, Mike caused no physical harm to himself or others and the arrest prompted Earley’s investigation of the mental health and criminal justice system.
Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds and his twenty-four-year-old son were not fortunate. Deeds’ emergency intake experience was similar to Jean’s and Earley’s but with horrifying consequences. His son’s observable symptoms indicated he was becoming gravely ill. Like Jean and Earley, Deeds was unsuccessful getting his son committed. Deeds was told there was no bed available for his son. Later, Deeds’ son stabbed his father, leaving a lasting facial scar, and then he killed himself. Says Deeds about his experience with the medical system,
That makes absolutely no sense…An emergency room cannot turn away a person in cardiac arrest because the ER is full, a police officer does not wait to arrest a murder suspect or a bank robber if no jail space is identified.
Deed’s experience prompted him to initiate changes in the emergency intake laws in his home state of Virginia. The changes include:
- Doubling the maximum duration of emergency custody orders to twelve hours and establish a framework to ensure private or state psychiatric beds are available for individuals who meet criteria for temporary detention.
- Requiring State hospitals to accept individuals under temporary detention orders when private beds cannot be found. The law enforcement agency that executes an emergency custody order will be required to notify the local community services board, which serves as the public intake agency for mental health emergencies.
- Establishing a state registry of acute psychiatric treatment beds available to provide real-time information for mental health workers.
Deeds acknowledges that changes to the intake law are “just the beginning” of the process the state must undergo to modernize and increase the effectiveness of the fragmented mental health system. His detractors believe more changes should have been implemented. But he accomplished what he’d identified while on his back in recovery from the physical injury his son inflicted. And these changes can be a model nationally. Deeds said, “The bill signed by Virginia Governor McAuliffe makes needed improvements to the emergency intake process. But there’s so much more to do.” As a father of a person with serious mental illness, Deeds is keenly aware of holes in the health care system. Says Deeds,
What happens after crisis intervention?…What if a person needs long-term care? What happens after the first 72 hours? Our system was deficient before, but a lot of deficiencies remain.
Many parents interviewed for our Behind the Wall story collection share the experience that there was little information about, and questionable access to, post emergency commitment treatments or alternative resources when a person in crisis is denied hospitalization.
Frustrating experiences like those of Jean, Earley and Deeds are shared by almost all parent/advocates of a loved one living with chronic mental illness. To effect change and remove dangerous roadblocks in the mental health system, Jean could, perhaps, pursue legal retribution against the medical professionals who failed her son despite having been provided Keith’s pertinent health history. But Jean notes that the hospital and mental health professionals followed an established protocol, even though that protocol was clearly flawed. Legally, they did nothing wrong. Instead, she will work for systemic change for Medicaid patients through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to shape a more comprehensive diagnostic protocol, one that incorporates a case-by-case basis method of treatment for mental illness symptoms. She expects pushback but she is determined.
Changes that advocates like Jean, Deeds, and Earley are pushing are critical for the reparation of the broken system. It seems overwhelming. But there is hope. In June 2015, Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA) introduced H.R. 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016, which was passed in July 2016 in the House. H.R. 2646 will now move to the Senate for approval. The changes proposed are substantive. The link to read the language of this bill and follow it as it moves through the Senate can be found here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2646
There is much work to be done in order to provide the best care for our loved ones who live and struggle with mental illness every day of their lives. If you are a caregiver or a person with mental illness we’d like to know your thoughts.
If you, or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please visit these sites and get help:
 All names have been changed to protect privacy.