In light of Mental Illness Awareness week, I wanted to share our story in regards to a personal interaction we recently had with law enforcement here in Vancouver, Wa. This is the letter I wrote after our encounter and one that our local NAMI is working to share on a higher level because it is such an incredibly important issue and one that we cannot continue to ignore.
As parents, we all dream of having perfect, healthy, beautiful, and one day, successful, children. We rarely, if ever, stop and think that the magnificent child we held in our arms the day they were born could one day have a severe neurological malady, or a pervasive developmental disorder. We are certainly not thinking that in some cases, these disorders will cause them to melt down, or scream at us with the lung capacity of a maniacal banshee- during which time, they are physically assaulting us, demeaning us with derogatory language, and expressing just how much our death would bring them immense joy. But, this is the truth facing thousands of families across this country. It’s the truth I live with every day, and it is that truth which has thrust me into the forefront of advocating for my child on a daily basis for the last eight years.
On September 8th of this year, my fourteen year old, 5’7”, 155-pound son with the cognitive abilities of an eight-year-old was having one of these such meltdowns, fueled by a continued adverse reaction to the Lorazepam his psychiatrist had prescribed him as a sleep aide. He was behaving in an erratic manner and shouting insults, even towering menacingly over me at times. He was also hurling full water bottles from a case on the floor towards me, and anything else within his grasp that was not nailed down. I had no alternative at that time other than to call 911 and ask for deputy assistance, as well as an ambulance transport so I could have him admitted to the E.R. where he needed to be evaluated.
My past personal interactions with law enforcement during times of crisis had left a strong impact on me in regards to how they’ve conducted themselves at our home when my child has a meltdown. At times, there had been positive interactions with law enforcement that had left me impressed with the skill and compassion they had displayed while interacting with my child. Then, there were the times that law enforcement presence had instilled anxiety, fear, and mistrust to the extent that I was unsure that they would be able to keep my child safe with a degree of continued integrity, discipline, and empathy on their part. Personally, for me, calling law enforcement has always been a last resort because I feel it’s engaging in a game of Russian roulette, only it’s my child’s life I’m putting at risk, not my own.
When three Clark County sheriff’s deputies arrived at my home that Monday in Vancouver, Wa., I was distraught, panicked, and frightened, not just for myself, but for my child who was now melting down for the ninth consecutive day and seemed to be losing his grasp on any semblance of self-control. When the deputies entered my home, they immediately began looking around and asked about the location of my son. I led them towards the back of our house where they found him hiding in a closet. At some point they were able to coax him out and he sat calmly but frightened on the bed while officers tried to ascertain what had occurred. Two of the deputies spoke with my son while the third asked if he could speak with me in the living room. In tears, I described the best I could what had happened and explained that my son was diagnosed with autism, anxiety, and mood disorder, and that he was having a negative reaction to medication. As I was speaking to one of the deputies, another deputy who had been speaking to my son came into the living room and began telling me my son “did not present with autism” and that my son was “perfectly aware of his actions.”
At that point, I got up to retrieve my son’s medical records from The National Institutes of Health where he spent seven weeks being evaluated after a three-year misdiagnosis of childhood onset schizophrenia. I showed the officer the paperwork and he barely glanced at it before again stating that my son “did not appear to be autistic” and that in all his years on the force he has never seen a child present so well. He then proceeded to ask for the tablet my son had damaged and inquire as to whether or not I had any visible marks on me. Just as it was dawning on me that these deputies were not here to assist me, but to try and find a way to charge my son with a crime and escort him – not to the hospital, like I requested – but to juvenile hall, I heard my son screaming frantically for help.
I immediately raced towards the back of our home as did the two deputies who were trying to prevent me from reaching my son. As I rounded the corner of our hallway, I saw my son, tears streaming down his reddened face, fear in his eyes, arms handcuffed behind his back, being dragged from our home through a back door entrance to our garage. I kept asking them “What are you doing? My son is autistic! Why are you doing this?” The officers spoke to me in an angry tone and told me my son “was not autistic” and that the officer felt my son had no remorse and knew what he was doing. Well, a five-year-old can tell you what he’s done and show little remorse, but that does not mean that he is cognizant of the consequences of his behavior. I tried explaining this to the deputies but they were having none of it; they had made up their minds.
Because two of the deputies were blocking me from reaching my son, I had to run to the front of the house, out the front door, and down the stairs to where – now all three deputies – were dragging my son down our driveway. I was relieved to see that the ambulance had shown up, as well as the emergency medical technicians. Had I not requested that ambulance when I called the emergency operator, and had it not arrived when it did, my son would have been taken to juvenile hall without a doubt, instead of to an E.R where he needed to be evaluated.
During the time this was all happening, I was flabbergasted – I could not believe the nightmare I had long feared was materializing before my face. I was in utter shock, and I was angry. I’m watching three deputies and three EMT’s strap my son down to a gurney with restraints, in the middle of the street, in broad daylight, while he is screaming in a blood curdling manner “what are you doing, why are they doing this to me!?” I thought my heart would break into a billion pieces while I touched his shoulder and promised him he would be alright. Through all of this chaos, my son was clutching his stuffed animal he refers to as “Jennifer.” To my son, Jennifer is, “his only friend, the only person who understands him, the only person who can protect him,” but, that day, all she could do was provide him little comfort in a world where he feels out of place and that doesn’t understand him any better than he understands himself.
Once they had my son restrained on the gurney, I turned to the deputy closest to me and told him I wanted a CIT- trained deputy. He looked at me and said, “I am a CIT deputy.” It was like a slap in the face on top of all the other indignities we were facing that day. CIT deputies are supposed to be trained in Crisis Intervention Management, yet, here he was with his fellow deputies causing a crisis situation to spiral out of control, refusing to accept that my son had an authentic diagnosis, and speaking to me in an intimidating and bullying fashion while continuing to tell me that “doctors make mistakes, they are wrong.”
It is these types of conjectures from law enforcement who are being called to a mental health crisis that can lead to deadly consequences. Law enforcement personnel are not in a legitimate position to correctly ascertain whether or not an individual has a mental health disorder. Those officers who are CIT trained have, at best, forty hours of training. They are not psychiatrists or other trained clinicians who have had years of education- training, and practice in the field.
What must be understood is that Autism is a spectrum disorder, and every individual with autism presents differently. My son can and does present very well, but that does not excuse the fact that he is diagnosed with autism and indeed has mental health challenges. If officers had been interested, I would have explained to them that in just the last three months alone, doctors had tried six different medications to support my son with his severe anxiety and mood. Four of those medications (Abilify, Zoloft, Prozac, Lorazepam), had induced psychotic-type thinking, extreme violence, suicidal thinking, anger that endangered his safety and ours, and had caused him to become endlessly unstable over the last few months, which was the reason for my call that day.
In my opinion, it is the type of events that occurred in my home on Sep. 8th, that have law enforcement in this country under such harsh scrutiny, and why there is an absence of public trust in regards to how law enforcement handle themselves. Since this incident occurred, I have met with two of the sheriff department’s commanders, along with a representative from Catholic Charities & National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), SW WA, who facilitated the meeting. I felt it was important that the deputies involved in the crisis at our home understood that they did not hold themselves to the highest levels of professionalism and that, to hold true to those standards, it could be beneficial to have further mental health crisis intervention training.
Personally, I do not want to have our family, or any family, endure the trauma or continuing stress we are going through. Especially since my son was sitting calmly on the bed at the time the officer dragged my son off the bed, pushed him against a wall, and handcuffed him. The fact is, the officer in the room talking with my son had lost his cool when my son told him he “wasn’t very nice” and he “shouldn’t be a police officer.”
My concern is: if this was all it took to send this law enforcement person over the edge that day, what would have happened to my son if my son was in a rage the way he was moments before they arrived? Would they have tasered him, or even worse, would they have shot and killed my son if he was still throwing things wildly around the room when they arrived – my son, who deputies did not believe to have a mental health diagnosis? What happens to the next child or family in crisis? When do we say enough, and make the necessary changes to meet the needs of everyone – not just those in crisis, but for law enforcement personnel as well- so that they may maintain an ethical stance, show cultural awareness, and understand the true complexities of mental illness and autism spectrum disorders, while remaining respectful and empathetic during a crisis call?
We are currently facing an epidemic in this country and everyone should be paying attention. It is estimated that 43.7 million adults aged 18 and over in the U.S suffer from a neurological malady such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, and there are a staggering 1 in 5 children who suffer or have suffered from a mental health disorder in this country, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. As far as the statistics on autism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC state that 1 in 68 children born in the U.S. will be affected.
Law enforcement and crisis lines are encountering people with mental health disorders and or those on the spectrum at an alarming rate in the calls they receive on a daily basis. One of the commanders I met with after the incident at our home told me that they “used to take a call or two a month” in regards to a mental health crisis and now they are taking “two or three calls every day.”
Disturbingly, there is an absence of adequate mental health care services in this country: there is a shortage of psychiatrists or other healthcare professionals capable of prescribing mental health medications, almost non-existent hospital care and or beds for those facing a psychiatric crisis, and a massive stigma surrounding what I prefer to call neurological maladies. This stigma prevents people from seeking the little help that is available, and it prevents people from communicating about their suffering, which may prevent someone from committing suicide.
As a country, we like to hold ourselves to a degree of exceptionalism and criticize other countries for their lack of advocacy and action towards human rights. Yet, we treat our own citizens who suffer from mental illness with such indignities. In a report I read recently, Amanda Pustilnik, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law, stated that, “Today, our largest mental hospitals are our jails. The jail at New York’s Rikers’ Island functions as the nation’s largest psychiatric facility. Los Angeles’ jails – not its hospitals – are California’s largest providers of mental health care. State prisons alone spend nearly $5 billion annually to incarcerate mentally ill inmates who are not violent.”
Those facing a mental health crisis want what any human being would want: to be treated with respect, dignity, and kindness. Neurological maladies are just that- they are an illness – and those facing these illnesses deserve the same quality of care and support an individual with cancer, diabetes, heart disease or any other chronic and potentially devastating disease receives.
There are some advocating that I file a formal complaint against these deputies, or that I even file suit against the department for the ongoing fallout from the charges that were brought against my son, stress, and the anxiety our family is continuing to endure because we now panic, wondering who we’ll call the next time my son has a life-threatening mental health crisis. But what will that change? Who does that serve? I have a child whose life I am working to save, a child who one day I may have to bury because he feels so determined that he must die because, as he says, “God made a mistake with me,” and because he lives with an organ in his body that he can’t control and that causes him unbearable pain and suffering. So what I need to do at this time, is not sue, but speak out, not just for local change, but national change in the way we treat people with a neurological malady, and for national reform to our mental health care system, starting with the state of Washington, which has a good track record as a leader in other arenas of health.
In the eight years I have had to navigate the mental health care system to help my child, I clearly see that on many levels, it is so flawed and dysfunctional in this country that it is teetering on the brink of being absurd. On top of that, there is an insurmountable stigma surrounding mental illness. We as a society judge, shame, and stigmatize what frightens us and what we don’t understand, but, if we don’t work to erase those stigmas and provide real support, services, law enforcement training, and hospital care for those in crisis, the percentage of mentally ill in this nation will only continue to rise and so will the consequences of inaction.
I don’t want my son to become a statistic. For me, the time for talk has stopped. Now is the time for unwavering and continuous change in the state of Washington and in the country. Anyone who may have a child, friend, spouse, family member, or is themselves facing a mental health crisis, suffers from a mental health disorder, or works in the field, I encourage you to speak out. If your story can change one mind, if it can enact just one change in our country for the betterment of those who cannot raise their own voice, don’t feel ashamed of your story! Tell it to whomever will listen until we see those changes take effect. I’m just one mother, and I cannot do it on my own.