Sun Sentinel Story: The frustrating, confusing world of mental illness

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Sun Sentinel

The frustrating, confusing world of mental illness

Finding suitable treatment, shelter is no easy task

Michael Mayo
Sun Sentinel Columnist
7:22 PM EST, March 8, 2014

After writing about mental-health crisis training for police last week, I got an outpouring of response from people who’ve been impacted by mental illness. I mainly heard from frustrated parents who feel like they have no place to turn for their sick sons and daughters.
“I don’t know what to do,” was a common refrain.

One mother wrote by email: “My husband and I have taken [our 27-year-old son] to numerous doctors and therapists, bailed him out of jail, guided him through a first offenders program, and ordered him to leave our home for our own safety where he has had to live in his car for months. The guilt we felt for having to do that was overwhelming.”

Mental illness often has no clear road map. Whether a loved one has been diagnosed a week ago or decades ago, the journey is never easy for family members. There’s confusion, denial, fear and an inclination to keep things hidden. But with mental illness affecting one in four American adults, hiding shouldn’t be an option. That’s why I’ll be spotlighting mental-health issues throughout the year.
“Sometimes family members can be in worse denial than the person who is sick,” said Evelyn Miller, 83, former president of the Broward chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “They say, ‘Maybe it’s just a phase,’ or they try prayer to cure their kids.'”

NAMI is often a good starting point for families navigating the treacherous terrain of mental illness. The Broward chapter can be reached at 954-739-1888, the Palm Beach County chapter at 561-588-3477.

Unlike physical illness, those with mental illness are often reluctant to accept or treat their conditions. Medications can have unpleasant side effects, such as weight gain and loss of sex drive. Many prefer to self-medicate with alcohol and street drugs, which can make things much worse.

It can lead to a revolving door of forced hospitalizations, arrests, jailings. Chronic cases, known as “frequent flyers,” repeatedly end up in emergency rooms, crisis units and courtrooms. State hospitals that provide long-term care for the most severely ill are practically extinct. And funding for community-based treatment is scarce, with Florida ranking near the bottom nationally for mental health and substance abuse services.

Miller, who has two sons with mental illness, helped bring the police Crisis Intervention Team training to Broward 12 years ago. She said people are more open about mental illness than a generation ago. “The overall picture is getting better,” she told me.

But those dealing with crises still find themselves lost and helpless.

Lana Donald, of Boca Raton, is trying to help her 50-year-old son, but can’t find a suitable place for him to live in South Florida. He was diagnosed with psychosis as a young adult, but led a stable life for a long time, with a job and an apartment in New York. A fire forced him from his home of 23 years last April, and things have since been chaotic. Donald said her son is depressed and unwilling to take his medication, and is now living in a group home in Queens. Donald said she called the Palm Beach County NAMI chapter for guidance, “but they told me there are so few places here, they couldn’t recommend anything.”

Mildred Smolker, 89, of Tamarac, has a 63-year-old son with schizophrenia and alcoholism. He used to rent a room in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, but trashed the place and was evicted earlier this year. He quickly cycled out of a crisis unit after being forcibly committed under Florida’s Baker Act. Smolker said he’s now living in a motel in Fort Pierce, drinking heavily. “When he’s on his meds, he’s the sweetest, most likeable person,” Smolker said. “I’ve been dealing with this for 40 years. I’m worn out.”

mmayo; 954-356-4508.

Copyright © 2014, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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