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My friend’s life was dominated by her mentally ill son.
He was schizophrenic and had dangerous delusions. He would be committed to the New Mexico State Hospital in Las Vegas for six months at a time, but could not be kept longer than that due to laws intended to safeguard the freedoms of the mentally ill.
She worried about him in the hospital because of the living conditions, but she worried about him much more when he was free.
The cycle of events was predictable. He’d be hospitalized, medicated, stabilized. The law required that he be released because he was demonstrably stable as long as he stayed on his meds.
Then he’d get out and come back to the only hometown he knew. He would stop taking the meds and get involved with lowlifes who shared bad street drugs with him and took whatever money he had. The delusions would come back and he would do something awful - life-threatening, perhaps - that would eventually land him back in Las Vegas.
A neighbor of his mother’s was, for no logical reason, the object of some of his delusions. He believed messages from alien spacecraft emanated from the neighbor’s house. Once he drove a car into the neighbor’s living room.
She spent more money than she had trying to get him help. Nothing worked.
Once she found a miracle cure — a radical change of diet — and told me with tears of joy that after all these years she had her son back. He was in his 30s. But it didn’t last.
Does everybody have at least one story about mental illness, about a life ruined, about heartbroken parents who try everything and blame themselves for their failures, their omissions, their flawed genes? I have more stories. New Mexico has many.
In the wake of the Tucson tragedy, with the legislature in session, I remember Joe Mercer, whom I knew well and admired immensely.
Joe, a former legislator, was a candidate for governor in 1986. He was shot to death by his mentally ill son, Stephen, in 1994, along with sheriff’s officer Bill Sibrava, when they went to Stephen’s home to take him to the hospital. Stephen Mercer also was killed in the incident, a not uncommon outcome for mentally ill individuals in police encounters.
Some decades ago, laws were changed to close the inhumane, snake pit mental hospitals of the past and replace them with community facilities allowing greater freedom for the residents.
You will not be surprised that the community facilities have never been adequately funded, perhaps because they are inherently much more expensive to operate. This year, it would not be realistic to demand radical increases in funding.
We’re going to have mentally ill people in jails and emergency rooms. If they cannot be proved to be an imminent danger, they can only be kept in custody for 72 hours. The most practical solution in the short term might be to change laws so it is easier for police to hold them for longer periods.
We have to continue asking why state agencies such as the Children, Youth and Families Department hire and pay enormous sums to third-party management companies, creating an expensive extra layer of bureaucracy between taxpayer dollars and mental health service providers instead of paying the providers directly.
Perhaps the most painful fact is that we don’t know how to cure mental illness. Maybe new research will find the answers, but meanwhile, some mentally ill individuals will not be “cured.” At best, they will only be managed. With the most humanitarian of intentions, we have yet to find the balance between the rights of those individuals and the hazards they pose for the rest of us.
NM News Services