Jerri Clark answered her phone in bed to hear her son on the line. He had missed the window to check into a young adult shelter and was calling, he said, to tell her, “Goodnight.”
He was cold, spending the October night alone in a patch of trees near the University of Washington’s campus in Seattle — 170 miles from his Clark County home.
He had little but a cellphone and his family’s old tent. The poles to hold it up were long gone, so he wrapped himself in the fabric like a coat.
Jerri was distraught. That was 2017 and Calvin Clark had been homeless for a few weeks, the result of more than two years of obstacles since his bipolar disorder diagnosis. As his condition was growing more and more severe, Jerri was losing faith that Washington’s mental health system would be able to save him.
Jerri and Calvin’s father had tried to keep their son housed and supported since his diagnosis at 19. But he didn’t want to live with his parents, he didn’t think he needed help, and he often didn’t take the medications medical providers prescribed.
“You have to stop enabling him,” his case manager told his mom. They had to let him fail, they were told, even if that meant homelessness, so he could learn to manage his own care.
Trying to help her son navigate Washington’s overtaxed and complicated mental health system, Jerri said, was like watching a penny slowly falling down a large coin funnel. She watched him spiral closer and closer to the bottom for years.
“That’s what the system does to the people who get sick,” Jerri said.
Homelessness and jail were at the bottom of Calvin’s funnel. Jerri is still trying to make sense of how a middle-class kid from Vancouver, Washington — who surfed on the weekends and was a champion in speech and debate — could ever wind up there.
“We were facing choices that range from horrible to super-duper horrible,” Jerri said. “There were no good options.”
Calvin’s eventual destitution helped to prove the severity of his case, and it helped him qualify for more comprehensive assistance, including a permanent and supportive place to live.
But even that wasn’t enough.
From a young age, Calvin wanted to know what was happening in the world. He was a bright child with a sensitivity to injustices, his mom said.
In high school, Calvin’s wit and critical thinking skills earned him a state championship and trips to the National Speech and Debate tournament.
He attended Willamette University in the fall of 2014 with a speech and debate scholarship. But shortly into his second semester, Jerri and her husband began receiving calls from him that sounded out of character. He was going to join a fraternity. His speech and debate friends had ostracized him. He was getting into trouble.
In February 2015, they picked Calvin up, thinking they could reason with him and then send him back to school. But after hours of listening to Calvin on his first night home, Jerri had a revelation.
“I suddenly had a lightbulb go off in my head: ‘This is mental illness,’” Jerri said. “I’d never seen it close up and personal before. I had no basis for understanding what I was hearing or seeing.”
Half of all severe lifetime mental health conditions arise by age 14 and 75% by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as NAMI. Calvin was a college freshman when first diagnosed.
Afterward, Jerri contacted close to 30 psychiatrists covered under the family’s private insurance to set up care. Only one of them had an open appointment in the next nine months.
Eventually, Jerri got him in to see a nurse practitioner, who told him that he either needed to take the medication she recommended or his life was going to fall apart.
“Help, even at the first stage, help looked like punishment,” Jerri said. Calvin’s mind was misleading him. When he was in a state of mania, he felt unstoppable, on top of the world.
“So just when life was looking more amazing than he ever thought possible, he’s got people like his mother telling him there’s something going wrong in his brain, and he needs to take this medication that makes him feel completely dull,” Jerri said.
Calvin took what was prescribed for a while, but eventually stopped. And as an adult, he had the right to refuse treatment.
“The irony is it’s the very nature of the condition that people tend to think that there’s nothing wrong with them or that there’s something wrong with everybody else,” said Angela Kimball, National Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for NAMI. It’s known as “anosognosia,” and it’s one of the most common reasons why people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder stop taking their medications.
Without treatment, Calvin’s manic episodes and psychosis became increasingly severe, and trying to live with him became more dangerous.
He became convinced that he needed to purify his blood. When he got a bloody nose he would burn the red tissues in his hands. He hardly slept. Didn’t respect boundaries. At times, he thought his mom was conspiring with the devil.
One day, he was on the back deck of their house swinging a stick around. When Jerri asked him to quiet down or come inside, he wielded the stick at her.
She called Clark County’s crisis line to report what was happening and ask if his behavior qualified him to be assessed for involuntary hospital treatment, which requires threat of imminent danger or serious harm under Washington law.
“Did he hit you with the stick?” the person on the phone asked her.
“No, I would like to avoid that,” she told them.
“Well, if he didn’t hit you, then there’s no imminent risk,” the crisis line operator told her. And the call ended.
Involuntary treatment laws are controversial. While a forced stay in an inpatient psychiatric hospital can help doctors stabilize a patient and help them engage in therapy and medication, many states’ laws err on the side of patient rights and set an extremely high bar to qualify.
A few weeks before the stick incident, Jerri thought if a medical provider saw Calvin when he was unmedicated and in a state of psychosis, his paranoia and aggressiveness toward her would be enough to qualify for involuntary hospitalization.
But the provider didn’t agree.
“The prescriber … told me that if I was afraid for my safety, I would need to call the police because there was nothing they could do,” Jerri said.
The two incidents proved a turning point for Jerri’s family.
“I switched from being afraid for my son to being afraid of my son because I knew no one was going to help our family.”
In the fall of 2016, Calvin tried to move to Seattle in the middle of the night. He was picked up by Washington’s Highway Patrol after he ran out of gas and was taken to a hospital to see if he was high. He wasn’t, but his behavior with the hospital staff qualified him for involuntary hospitalization, the first in a series of hospitalizations, incarcerations and bouts of homelessness.
“The way that our system is, we wait until people are at the equivalent of stage 4 cancer, and then we try to intervene and we try to offer them all of this support,” said Jim Vollendroff, former director of the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division.
Vollendroff was running King County’s behavioral health division at the time he first connected with Jerri and learned of Calvin’s situation in 2018. At that point, Calvin was in King County jail. He had broken into a home while in psychosis, thinking it was his.
While Calvin was in jail for six weeks, Jerri formed a grassroots organization, called Mothers of the Mentally Ill. She began engaging with policy leaders, service providers and even Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, telling her son’s story — her family’s story — and advocating reform. While in jail, Calvin qualified for low-income housing in Seattle with social services included and was placed there following his release.
Jerri suspects he wouldn’t have received even that level of support if she wasn’t still advocating for him.
After Calvin was housed, he was able to stabilize and begin thinking about the future. He completed a barista training program. He found community with Seattle Clubhouse, which provides support for people living with mental illness. And he started public speaking again.
Months after Vollendroff spoke to Calvin’s concerned mother on the phone, he attended a panel discussion about the work of Seattle Clubhouse. Waiting for it to begin, he noticed that one of the panelists didn’t look very excited to be there.
But as soon as this young man began to speak, Vollendroff said, he was articulate and filled with gratitude — and sounded familiar.
“And I was sitting there listening to this young man and it clicked, ‘That’s Calvin.'”
After the panel, Vollendroff invited Calvin to come speak to his social work students at the University of Washington.
Calvin was reconnecting in new ways with his parents. And Jerri was excited to work with him on her mental health advocacy.
About eight months after Calvin moved into supportive housing, he attended a conference in St. Louis to attend a leadership training for Seattle Clubhouse. He didn’t take his medication with him, Jerri said, and people on the trip later told her that he wasn’t acting like himself.
While he was on the trip, Calvin died by suicide. He was 23.
“He was probably in psychosis, and I think probably very discouraged about the road ahead and how hard it would be,” Jerri said.
Since Calvin could no longer speak to Vollendroff’s class, his mom, Jerri, told the story for him.
Two years after his death, she’s continued to be a vocal advocate for mental health reform in the state. She’s helped to influence the passage of Washington Senate Bill 5720, which makes several changes to the Involuntary Treatment Act, including increasing the initial detention time period from three days to now up to five days and creating a statewide work group to study gaps in the system.
She wants to implement changes that she wished for Calvin during his life.
“It wasn’t the illness that killed him,” Jerri said. “It was the system’s lack of appropriate response that killed him. He died of a treatable illness.”