Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series of guest columns on mental health, from The Seattle Times Mental Health Project.
We need to change our approach to treating mental health.
Society treats mental health more like a prison system than a health care system. When a person is considered a danger to themselves or society, their rights as a human being are often pressed into a system that does not treat them with care.
Other people walk in a vast gray area between not being a danger to society and still having a mental illness. My mother is one of those people. I believe she needs more help than my family can give and more help than she is receiving through legal and mental health systems.
Gray areas are always tricky to navigate, and each circumstance is unusual at best. Often, the only way to help someone is to determine whether their safety or the safety of others is at risk. Sometimes proving that can be difficult, which prevents people from getting the help they need.
My mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had her first manic episode when she was 38 years old and I was 12. She had no documented medical history of trauma or depression. Since her diagnosis, she has lived with depression and faithfully taken her medication prescribed to treat bipolar disorder. The manic episodes have been rare, but when they occur, they wreak havoc on her and our family.
In 2013, she was having an intense manic episode in another state. I’ve found the only way I know to help her is to get her involuntarily committed to a hospital. The only way I can get my mother to a hospital is through the local police. And, often, the only way the hospital will take my claim seriously is if I can prove that she is a physical danger to herself or another person, which mostly is not true or can be a challenge to prove.
One of the hardest parts about living with someone who has a mental illness is that their moods swing quickly. In one moment, they gain clarity and know they need help. But often, by the time help arrives, they are combative and refuse.
During the 2013 episode, she was willing to leave with the police officer and go to the hospital, but it was the last time she hugged me. She began to resent me for making her go, and had felt the same way toward my father when he previously had sought help for her.
While she was in the hospital during that episode, I struggled with a lawyer to find a legal justification for why she was a danger to herself and others and needed to stay committed. Looking back, I realized I could have said that my mother was driving a car almost daily even though she hadn’t slept for over a week.
The mental drain had been very demanding on her and my family, but that was not enough for the state to consider her a physical danger. Ultimately, the judge decided she was not considered a concern and allowed her to return home.
She was trapped with nowhere to turn. She does not belong in a prison, but she cannot function on mania either.
This happens nationwide. The law in Washington state requires a person who refuses voluntary admission to be evaluated within six hours of being brought to a hospital and restricts when they can be detained, focusing on whether they are a safety threat — a common theme in many states.
Many who suffer from mental illness have families that struggle to support them; there are few resources for families to understand how to be supportive. We need to help those living with mental illness by equipping their loved ones with knowledge.
Humans, all of us, have basic rights. I understand that hospitals have limited staff and capacity. But I also feel that helping only people who are physically dangerous is not the answer. There should be room for everyone who is suffering. I want to see a shift change where caring people take to the streets and help and hospitals can accommodate more.
I want to see my mother succeed in her health. I want to see our health care system treat mental health as seriously as it does cancer or heart disease.
Many families face these struggles, and most of us do it quietly. That gray area between living life in society or being pushed aside because of mental illness is a large gap that divides families and societies. My hope is that we can share these stories to better understand and work toward a brighter future for everyone.