Parade Season

It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day; green shamrocks and leprechauns are blossoming everywhere. I dread it.

I grew up Irish Catholic, and New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held out as the premier event of the year. But it’s a horror show, really: a raucous crowd moving slowly toward St. Patrick’s Cathedral—newly sand-blasted and shining like heavenly light—presided over by a rotund patriarch who will condemn a girl to hell with no chance of forgiveness if she has an abortion, even after being raped, but readily forgives the man who raped her if he confesses and says a few Hail Mary’s. It all lost its glimmer for me a long time ago.

ROTC cadets march in uniform, mothers’ dear sons, a belief in invincibility propelling them to brass buttons and jaunty hats, as if we were back in Prussia 200 years ago and World War II and Viet Nam and Iraq had never happened, despite the casualties limping and wheeling along in the next regiment. Men in kilts play bagpipes. No snakes anywhere. I guess St. Patrick did his job.

The parade-goers—more carpe-diem types than the marchers—are cheering, midst bar-hopping with green plastic, 32 oz. cups, screaming and singing Clancy Brothers and Tommy Mackem pub tunes (which mostly seem to end in young Irishmen taking a stand for the auld sod and being killed by Englishmen) till finally limping and vomiting into the dawn. Chicago, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, New Orleans…the disease spreads.  More drunken revelers and irritating leprechauns. Is alcoholism really a defining genetic trait, one to celebrate? Does anyone find leprechauns enjoyable?

St. Patrick’s Day segues into Passover and Easter, women in outlandish hats taking the places of the marching ROTC cadets and vomiting 20-somethings on the Avenue. Matzah on paper doilies at the grocery. Baskets of green plastic grass laced with oddly-hued jelly beans and chocolate eggs and bunnies everywhere else. All topped off by lamb cake.

So the dancing druids of my Celtic, 20X great-grandparents celebrating the equinox have morphed into green beer, parades, and treats like pink marshmallow bunnies that will puff up like magic in a microwave. These festivities far overshadow the last Christian remnants of the ancient solar holiday—crosses of blessed palm fronds, groaning church organs and strange men in medieval robes blessing the congregation–or so I presume, since I gave it all up years ago. “I’ve lost my faith,” I explain to an elderly aunt, the last of her generation. “That I lived to see the day,” she tsk tsks, shaking her head.


Accidental Advocate

Accidental advocate

Four years ago, I published a memoir about taking care of my Schizophrenic brother. When I was working on the book (Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle), I did research into national statistics on mental illness, and I was horrified. My family had always thought the poor care my brother received was a horrible mistake. We thought that his social workers must not have realized that the modern psychotropic medications—reputed to virtually cure psychosis—didn’t really help him. They must not have realized that he needed to live in sheltered, supervised housing, not be expected to take care of himself. But, to the contrary, we found this abandonment of people with serious mental illnesses (SMI) to be a nationwide scourge. He was one of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people suffering from serious mental illness, abandoned by the country’s mental health system, destined to a miserable half life of delusions, homelessness and victimization. More than one percent of our population suffers from schizophrenia (that’s over 3 million people), and more than half of them need the kind of care my brother needed. And they’re not getting it.

Most people with a serious mental illness cannot keep a job. Their families often try their best to help them, but they simply can’t handle them when they’re as difficult as my brother. They depend on social services, notably Medicaid, for health care coverage.  Medicaid does a decent job of  providing medical care to the least fortunate of our fellow citizens if they suffer from diabetes or bronchitis, cancer or eye infections. Medicaid pays for their care for physical ailments, even if it involves a multi-week stay in a hospital. But Medicaid funds, from its inception in the mid 1960’s, were barred from caring for people with a psychiatric illness on an inpatient basis. The legislation prohibits its use in the treatment of adults (persons between the ages of 21 and 64) in facilities having more than 16 beds for the specific treatment of mental disorders, a.k.a. institutions for mental disease (IMD). It also effectively prevents the management of long term supervised housing for people whose mental disabilities prevent them from living independently.

Congress included coverage for Alzheimer’s disease and intellectual disabilities in Medicaid legislation; many of us have a grandmother or other senior relative being cared for in a nursing home because of their dementia, the care being paid for by Medicaid. But when the Medicaid legislation was passed there was a concern that if IMD’s were included in the Medicaid program, the states would continue to warehouse people in hospitals instead of providing services in the community, which was their goal. That reasoning has not lived up to the promise, however. Without funding, most IMD’s have closed. Yet communities have failed to provide adequate comprehensive community-based services to take their place, leaving those with serious mental illnesses without adequate care.  No institutions are helping families care for their seriously mentally ill loved ones anymore. Those who are ill are ferried into ERs, then released with a bottle of pills and no real help—if they are lucky. In many cases, they end up in prison, or shot by police called to help the family when their loved one is acting out.

My brother Paul, luckily, never ended up in jail or shot by police, but he was given desultory care, at best.  He was too dangerous for us to let him live at home with us, yet the “adult homes” he was placed in were inadequate for the severity of his symptoms.

I determined that this had to change. I joined up with organizations of family members like me who were lobbying Washington DC for improved care practices. Organizations like the Treatment Advocacy Center, and advocates from Baltimore, Sacramento & Los Angeles, New Orleans—all over the United States. And things have begun to change. With the implementation of the 20th Century Cures Act last year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Agency (SAMHSA) has a new, cabinet level head of the subagency that deals with serious mental illness, and they are revamping its activities to make sure those who are most seriously ill get the treatment they need. I now serve on the communications committee of the National Shattering the Silence Coalition, an organization of activist like my self who are fighting to have the IMD exclusion to Medicaid repealed.

There is much more work to be done.  

And now I have added another cause to my advocacy, another response to my writing.

When my teenaged nephew died of a heroin overdose, I had no intention of getting involved in any further advocacy work. I wrote the poetry which eventually became my chapbook, Aftermath, from my sense of sorrow, not with any didactic interests. I found I had to slow down and let the grief sink in. Everything I saw around me was tinged with loss. I had to make sense of this, and of the changed circumstances of my family.  When more sorrows arose—the deaths of two people close to me—it compounded my grief. The collection became a kind of meditation on loss and a search for renewal. 

Yet again, I have found myself immersed in advocacy. I am appalled at the greed and ineptitude that have contributed to the opioid crisis. I am mystified at how little current treatment standards do to help people with substance use disorder (SUD) overcome their addiction and move on to a productive life.  I now speak out for tighter regulation to hold rehab centers accountable for the efficacy of their practices, including evidence- based practices for rehab treatment.  And I encourage efforts to hold accountable the drug companies whose aggressive marketing of drugs like OxyContin contributed to the crisis.

The news is filled with articles about lives lost to opiates. West Virginia and Kentucky may be the epicenter of the plague, but no town in the U. S. has escaped the scourge.  About 75,000 people died of an opiate overdose in the past year. We also, all too often, are horrified to read about yet another mass shooting, many of them involving a shooter with untreated mental illness.  And for every life lost, an entire family suffers.

Congress appears to have come to the realization that the IMD exclusion is preventing the funding of care for people trying to overcome their SUD, as well as those with a SMI.  So people who cannot afford inpatient care try to deal with their issues using outpatient services. There is legislation in the works that may, at least temporarily, allow Medicaid funds to pay for up to a month of in-patient treatment. The legislation is incomplete, however, as it does not take into account how many people with SUD are also suffering from a severe mental illness. Both conditions need inpatient medical care, using verified treatment methods and holding the treatment facility accountable for statistically positive results.

I speak out whatever chance I get about the need for better treatment of both SUD and SMI. (I’m becoming a master at acronyms!) All kidding aside, I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who found a man from another town beaten and robbed in a ditch. He took the man home and nursed him back to health. Growing up, we were taught that we must care for people who suffer, help them back on their feet. I guess the lessons sunk in.

One of my poems in Aftermath includes the lines:

Even then you and I sensed this could happen only once. Our lives/ 

would now have a before and after.

Caring for my brother was an experience like that. Losing my nephew was an experience like that.  Sometimes we go through a difficult time in our life and we are changed. In my case, I became – quite by accident – an advocate. 


Katherine Flannery Dering is a writer and mental health advocate and serves on the communications committee of the Shattering the Silence Coalition, ( an organization that seeks to highlight the need for better care for the millions of people suffering from serious brain disorders. She believes words can effect change, and she hopes her words help in this effort. She also blogs on behalf of sensible controls over illegal opiates and results-proven rehab programs.

Her chapbook, Aftermath, began during the weeks following the death of her teenage nephew from a drug overdose. During the ensuing months, two other close friends died, as well. This collection is, in part, reflections on the question, How do I make sense of my life in the face of death’s inevitability? How do any of us?  She empathizes with other victims of the country’s opioid epidemic and encourages family survivors to speak out for better, evidenced-based treatment. These poems delve into the sorrow of losing someone to drug addiction and asks the question, where do I go from here?

Ms. Dering has lived in Westchester county, New York for over thirty years. Currently, she serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series, is on the board of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and is an active member of the Pound Ridge Authors Society.  She blogs at  Visit her website at  Her chapbook, Aftermath, is available at   and at Amazon. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle is available at Amazon.

Schizophrenia and family caregiving   

A Book Club Discussion Guide to Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle

This story can impact the reader at several levels. However you approach it – as personal memoir, curiosity about the reality of schizophrenia, or as a simple story of how a family came together to care for a loved one with a serious mental illness,  I hope these questions will help to stimulate some good discussions.

1.    Some of the scenes in Shot in the Head take place more than fifty years ago.  Others involve emotionally-charged situations.  The author states that the book’s dialogue and sequence of events are her “best efforts to present what really took place.” How is its accuracy important to your experience of the book?  What do you expect when you read a book classified  as memoir?

2.    The author describes her lack of involvement in Paul’s care in the first few years of his hospitalization.  What factors contributed to that distance?  How does she change over the course of Paul’s illness?

3.   As much as this book is about Paul and Katherine, it is also about the whole family, especially the other siblings – Monica, Ilene, Patrick, Sheila, etc.  Did you identify with any of the siblings? Which one?  How did ​their relationship with their brother change during the course of his illness?  Where do you see the changes?

4.     Paul’s care changes dramatically over his lifetime.  How do Federal and State legislation impact his care?  What role do you think public agencies, the medical community and insurance companies should play in the care of someone like Paul?  What role should be played by the family – parents, siblings, children? What help do family caregivers need?

5.    How is the care received by people who suffer from brain diseases different from the care received by people who suffer from malfunctions of other body organs such as the kidneys, heart or pancreas?  What factors have led to these differences?  Do you think a person with serious mental illness should be forced to accept treatment? 

6.    Society also deals with brain disease differently than other types of illness.  For example, if your neighbor has breast cancer or a heart attack, you bake the family a cake or offer to help get the patient to medical appointments.  How do you react if you find out a neighbor has bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia?  Why?  How can this change?  

7.    Which of the stories about Paul- things he did, things that happened to him – touched you the most?  

8.    When Paul begins to suffer pulmonary problems, he is diagnosed first with pneumonia.  How do you think his cognitive impairment impacted the level of care he received?  How did it impact his care from the oncologist?

9.    How did his care change when his sisters had him transferred to a nursing home?  How did his behavior change?  Why do you think it changed?

10.    The author uses several genres to put forward her story – narrative, emails, poetry, pictures.  How do these different genres impact the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of the issues and the characters?

11.    Do you believe Paul is better or worse off when he is released from the state hospital?  Give examples of how his life changes.  How do we balance the trade-offs between a person’s desire for freedom and the knowledge of the medical establishment that he or she needs supervision?  Where else in our lives do we see similar trade-offs?

12.  Has your perception of mental illness changed since reading Shot in the Head?  If so, how?


Ten Things We can Do to Help People with a Serious Mental Illness

Here are ten things which could be done to get people with serious mental illnesses– like schizophrenia and serious bi-polar disorder– the care they need BEFORE they hurt themselves or others.

My brother suffered with schizophrenia for 32 years. He, like about a third of all people with that diagnosis, did not get better with existing treatment methods, and lived out a sort of half-life, cycling through hospitals and adult homes. The following steps could have made a big difference for him and our family, and could make a big difference for those still suffering with disease symptoms.

1. Repeal the Medicaid IMD Exclusion, which prevents Medicaid funds from being used at “institutions for mental disease.” This prevents mentally ill people from getting the inpatient care they need at psychiatric facilities. It is discriminatory and is behind much of our failure to care properly for people with SMI.  For more information on the IMD, please see the website of the Treatment Advocacy Center and/or the position statement on the IMD at the website of the National Shattering the Silence Coalition.

2. Modify commitment laws to include grave disability instead of dangerousness. Treat people before there’s a tragedy. Recognize that the sufferer’s own need for treatment is as valid as the danger he might pose to others. This is especially true for those who lack insight and therefore can’t/won’t seek treatment voluntarily. Treading that fine line between loose commitment laws and a person’s civil rights is sometimes difficult to manage in a broad law. In recent years, the laws have been interpreted so narrowly that even when someone is obviously disturbed, authorities don’t believe the person is dangerous enough to commit. People who are falling apart with the onset of serious mental disease are not committed, and we end up with many private tragedies, as well as the more publicized ones, like the shootings in Thousand Oaks, California or Parkland, Florida.

3. Reform use of HIPAA  privacy laws so that valuable family care givers aren’t left out of treatment plans. Parents are often expected to take in their dangerously ill adult child, yet are denied access to changing diagnoses or treatments.

4. Implement nationally the RAISE program, an early intervention program with wrap around services that is now in use in some parts of the country.

5. For people diagnosed with schizophrenia, use Clozapine earlier in treatment rather than having a person wait until they’ve failed on other drugs…it works! The medication has been linked to a dangerous side effect, but that link has come under serious scrutiny. Again, as with HIPAA implementation and commitment laws, well-meaning restrictions on this medication cause it to be very much underutilized, and lives are being allowed to suffer when they could be greatly improved. My brother finally was treated with Clozapine and it did help him.

6. Use cognitive enhancement therapies as soon as possible. Get it covered by insurance. Most of the difficulties a long-term sufferer of serious mental illness encounters, even after psychosis has subsided, is due to cognitive damage. CET  may help them recover.

7. Municipalities should make sure that training such as that included in LEAP training is provided for all medical and police personnel, to prevent tragedies when they are called to help.

8. Follow up repeal or serious modification of the IMD exclusion, with permanent supportive housing–-not just once-a-week social worker visits–-for those most seriously disabled from mental illness, people like my brother.

9.  Make sure your school system has trained counselors and senior staff in how to recognize the signs of onset of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, and that they maintain a list of professional to refer parents to for help. The onset of these diseases is usually late adolescence, and educators are often in a position to help parents seek help and the student’s inclusion in programs such as the RAISE program, noted above.

10. Petition legislators to provide funding for education of more neuropsychiatrists! This could include straight out funding and/or school loan debt subsidies. Often families can’t find a therapist who can take on another patient. The shortage leads to care for the SMI being administered through well-meaning, but ill-equipped social workers, etc. Use telehealth for those who can’t get in to see a psychiatrist. First line care providers should link families to this source of information and counseling.

Be aware. Tell your representative you want them to do something to fix this. Call your members of Congress. Congress has set aside a large pool of funding to help deal with the opioid crisis. Make sure they know we want them to work on improving the care of people with serious mental illness, as well. Click here: Link to find your representative’s contact info

Please note that this list  builds on one developed by my sister, Ilene Fannery Wells, and which is posted on her website, (Note: the legislation she was advocating for here, was passed and included in the 20th Centuries Cure Act passed in 2016.)

I have written about my family’s efforts to care for my brother. The book is called Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle.


What Survivors Do

Four years ago this past January, a close family member, a teenager, died of a heroin overdose. As you can imagine, the whole family was terribly upset. The boy’s parents were overcome with grief. We’re a large family, and we were all stunned. I knew that the boy had been dealing with an addiction issue, and that he had dropped out of high school; his parents didn’t know what to do with him. But I didn’t know much more that that. His parents had put on a brave face and said he was in this rehab or that rehab and they were hoping for the best. But their hopes were dashed when, less than a month after a year long – and very expensive – stay in a rehab place, he OD’d. (I’ve written about that loss in Aftermath.)

The story is way too common. According the the Center for Disease Control, opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths in 2016; opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than 1999. By 2018, deaths rose to over 70,000, almost double 2016. Where does it end?!  And every one of these drug-related deaths left behind many more grieving friends and family. People suffering from addiction slip in and out of rehab centers and detox programs, but they very often relapse. Think of someone like Amy Winehouse: such a promising performer; she entered several treatment programs but didn’t make it. Is this the best our medical establishment can do?

A couple of months ago, I was speaking with a representative of my college alma mater—we’ll call him Allen—who was trying to convince me to donate some money to the university.  Allen knew of the book I wrote a few years ago about caring for my brother, who suffered from severe and treatment resistant schizophrenia. We talked for a while about the advocacy work I’ve been doing to try to improve care for people with serious mental illnesses. And then I described my new poetry collection, Aftermath, which was written in the months after my young relative’s overdose death.  

Allen nodded his head a few times as I spoke, then said that I was the first person he’d met who actually knew anyone who was mentally ill or had died from a drug overdoseHe’d read about the “opioid epidemic” in the newspaper and on line. At our country’s all-too-frequent mass shootings, or in stories about homeless people, there is often a reference to people being mentally ill. But he said he’d never been directly touched by it, himself. Our conversation drifted from one topic to the next, as conversations often do. And then, out of the blue, Allen said, “You know, a cousin of mine committed suicide a couple of years ago. And we had an uncle who suffered from terrible depression and was in and out of the hospital.”  

In half an hour he went from being “not directly touched” to describing two close family members who suffered from mental illness. 

It is likely that in his universe of friends and family there is also someone with an addiction problem. I don’t wish it on him, or anyone, but statistically, it is likely.  Still, people don’t talk about it. Addiction and mental illness are judged as if they are the result of weakness–a lack of willpower or simply a behavioral issue that victims can work their way out of if they would just try harder. And so people don’t talk about it; they are ashamed to talk about it. Only when my conversation had normalized the topic did Allen remember the uncle and cousin. We don’t like to even think about it.

Where we are at the federal level

SAMHSA – the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration—the government agency assigned to deal with these problems—is overwhelmed and underfunded. And one of the persistent problems they face is limiting their funding to evidence-based practices for treatment.  Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, Ph.D., the new Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, issued a statement in January of 2018 regarding the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) and SAMHSA’s new approach to implementation of evidence-based practices (EBPs). 

She said that SAMHSA has used the NREPP since 1997 to help them decide what to fund. For the majority of its existence, NREPP vetted practices and programs submitted by outside developers – resulting in a skewed presentation of evidence-based interventions which did not address the spectrum of needs of those living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders. They presented programs they knew how to run, rather than the programs people might need more. These needs include screening, evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, psychotherapies, psychosocial supports and recovery services in the community. In other words, programs previously defined as successful don’t, on further study, really get to the heart of the problems. So what is a successful program? 

Defining “Successful Rehab”

I’ll let professionals analyze the entire spectrum of community needs. But I think I share my definition of a successful drug rehab program with most people. A successful program would be one which treats anyone in the community who needs it. One where at least three-quarters of the participants complete the program, and where 80% or 90% of those who complete it are still drug free five years later. Sounds reasonable, don’t you think? But my young relative who relapsed, to deadly effect, was not an outlier. What happened to him is the rule, not the exception.

Treatment results are not impressive. According to one online site, (which I picked because they seem proud of their efforts)

  • Inpatient treatment (combining medication and counseling with an average stay of 31 days) costs $3,200 on average.*** 73% of addicts complete treatment and 21% (of the ones who complete the course) remain sober after five years.
  • Residential treatment (average stay 71 days) costs $3,100 on average. 51% of addicts complete treatment and 21% remain sober after five years.
  • Detox—which is medically assisted, and can go on for and average of  227 days—costs $2,200 on average. 33% of addicts complete treatment and 17% remain sober after five years.
  • Outpatient drug-free treatments—lasting 164 days— cost $1,200 on average.*** 43% of addicts complete treatment and 18% ( of the 43%) remain sober after five years.

     (***I’m not sure what these costs refer to: weeks? the complete program?)

These statistics, as weak as they are on their face, are even worse than they first appear. For example, 21% of 73% is 15%. That means that only 15% of people who start an inpatient treatment program are still clean after five years.  And the stats for detox are much worse: 17% of 33% is 5.6%. In other words, under 6% of people who go into detox are clean five years later. And so on. How can anyone consider this a successful program? And is it the program itself or follow up care in the community? What is going wrong?

In McCance-Katz’s statement, after some analysis she concluded,  “We know that the majority of behavioral health programs still do not use evidence-based practices: one indicator being the lack of medication-assisted treatment, the accepted, life-saving standard of care for opioid use disorder, in specialty substance use disorder programs nationwide.”  What I read her to be saying is that people around the country are paying for, and placing their hopes on, programs that often do not use the practices that actually work. This has to change.

Of course, we can all wish that the drug companies would be more responsible and that criminal drug cartels didn’t exist.  In the meantime, we can put pressure on the medical research establishment to figure out why some people seem to become addicted so easily, while others don’t. We can also ask those researchers to identify treatments that have been proven to actually work. And we can help our addicted loved ones find a treatment program that has been proven to work better than most. 

To do that, we have to talk about it. We have to be willing to face up to the problems we see around us. If we knew a relative or friend had cancer, we wouldn’t hesitate to mention a reputable treatment center for the disease. We can do the same for substance abuse and brain disorders.

And we can demand that our lawmakers fund research to discover causes and better approaches to cures. We voted for them. Our taxes pay their salaries. Let’s demand that they support Dr. McCance-Katz’s efforts to find evidence-based practices that work for the big problems. Sometimes those of us who have already lost our loved one have a valuable perspective on what works and what doesn’t. Those who have seen someone turn their life around also have learned much from the process. Let us all speak up.

Follow Up 

This is the official SAMHSA website that will direct you to a treatment program that at least has a chance of working:

And this is SAMHSA’s National Helpline

1-800-662-HELP (4357)
TTY: 1-800-487-4889


Also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service, this Helpline provides 24-hour free and confidential treatment referral and information about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, and recovery in English and Spanish.

The Center for Disease Control also has several valuable links about substance abuse disorder and an outline for ways for reduce overdose deaths.


For more information on my book, Aftermath, click here.


Angels and Devils and Brock Turner

I applaud the decision by voters in California to recall the judge who infamously gave a young man named Brock Turner a ridiculously short sentence for rape.

Late one evening in 2015, tourists in Stanford, California came across a young white man molesting a woman who lay unconscious on a sidewalk. They rushed to stop him, then held him till the police arrived. The next spring, a jury found Brock Turner, a freshman swimmer at Stanford University, guilty of three felony counts: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person, and penetration of an unconscious person. 

His sentence? Despite calls from the prosecutor for a strong one, in June of 2016, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to only six months in prison for this violent crime. When he was released in August of 2016, he had spent less than 3 months in jail.

“I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life. And the impact statements that have been—or the, really, character letters that have been submitted, do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr. Turner based on the conviction,” the judge is reported to have said at the sentencing hearing.

Had the woman he raped not suffered a huge “collateral consequence?”  

“An outrage!” many media outlets proclaimed. People marched and carried signs. The internet and 24 hour news channels were filled with calls for change. Was this the case that would finally get people to approach sexual assault as a crime? After all, this young man raped a woman who was lying unconscious on the sidewalk. 

But wait—another young, white, privileged sex offender had been released just a month before Turner’s sentencing, also after doing very little prison time. On August 28, 2015, Owen Labrie, a high school senior, was convicted of sexually assaulting a female classmate about a year before, at St. Paul’s Prep School in New Hampshire, an elite, church-affiliated school. He had been on trial for felony rape, which could have carried up to 20 years in prison, but the jury acquitted Labrie of that, instead assigning the lesser charge. The victim wasn’t identified by name in official documents because she was only 15 years old at the time of the sexual assault.

Labrie and his buddies, upperclassmen at the school, had been playing a game of conquest, competing to see how many freshman and sophomore girls they could deflower. He had convinced this girl that he really cared about her and so managed to earn a notch for his belt. 

Before sentencing, Labrie’s mother, Denise Holland, submitted a letter to the judge asking for probation only, for her son. She wrote that Labrie had become despondent and suicidal as “so many years of dedication and hard work dissolved before him.” The judge ssentenced him to only six months in prison. When he was released in May of 2016, like Turner, Labrie had served only about half of that. 

For speaking out, the young girl was harassed on social media for years, called all sorts of terrible slurs. And for this he served only a couple of months in prison. 

That judge is still at the bench. He has not been recalled.

It is hard to believe, reading about these cases, that so much attention was placed on how a long sentence would damage these young men’s futures. The judges were completely drawn into imagining how these “otherwise promising” young men would suffer. Yet it was Turner who branded himself as a criminal, when he chose to take advantage of an unconscious woman. And LaBrie had turned his back on his own future when he chose to act the sexual predator.  

There is something about a young, well-to-do white man that seems to beg that the courts consider his “promise.” But what sort of promise do these men hold, anyway? As far as I can tell, it is the promise of future sexual assaults on other unsuspecting young women. It is certainly not a promise for a future career as a scientist, college professor or priest. 

At least, in these two cases, the men were found guilty of something. They will have to register as convicted sexual offenders for the rest of their lives. (One of them has reopened his case to try to get that requirement lifted.) The presence of a corroborating witness in one case and the age of the victim in the other demanded that something be done. Still, a few months in jail for possibly ruining the lives of these young women?

And although the perpetrators were arrested and found guilty, the pathetically weak sentencing is only half of the insult to these women. After stepping forward and filing charges, the women were tried by the jury of public opinion, and found by many of them to be almost as guilty as their rapists.The internet is full of vile comments about them, which anyone can find as a matter of record. No wonder so many women don’t get up the courage to speak up until many years have passed and they are perhaps in a more powerful position, or until they find strength in numbers.

Recently, women of the Air Force Academy have come forward to report that not only were several women raped by their colleagues over the past several years, but also that senior officials did little or nothing to punish the men. The women, meanwhile have been subjected to terrible hazing and mistreatment, in punishment for speaking up, ratting on their peers. Several female Air Force cadets resigned, rather than be subjected to the daily abuse. The perpetrators have gone on to graduate.

a more personal perspective

In my 30 or so years working in the corporate world, I was always thankful that I had escaped any sexual harassment in the workplace. I faced gender bias on getting a job or getting promotions, but I was never actually assaulted at work. I felt terrible for the women who suffered at the hands of powerful men, emboldened by their positions to take advantage of the women. But that does not mean I escaped the curse. As the Twitter hashtag #me too revealed, if you ask any woman, chances are she will tell you a story of how she or a relative or friend was sexually harassed or assaulted. My escape from sexual assault is only compared to many others that were worse. 

In my sophomore year of high school, a fellow student began to follow me around school and asked me out repeatedly. I politely declined and asked him to quit following me. Instead, he followed me everywhere. He lived on another bus route, but he began taking my school bus in the afternoon and often walked behind me the three blocks from the bus stop to my home, then stood outside calling my name. 

Junior year, senior year. Some evenings he would call me on the phone every 15 minutes, all evening long. My parents reported the situation to the police over and over again. They also spoke to the boy’s parents, who apologized and placed a lock on their home phone. But the boy kept following me and calling.  It was horrible, unnerving to see that guy everywhere I went. 

When I left for college 200 miles away, he transferred his interest to my younger sister, sitting outside the house in our rhododendron bushes and calling her name. One night she awoke to a man in her room, his hand over her mouth, telling her to be quiet. Our 80 pound yellow mutt, Charlie, had heard a strange noise, though, and came barking into the room. The intruder jumped out the window onto the porch roof and was gone. The police never figured out who it was. We were pretty sure we knew. 

“Well, lucky you have a good dog,” the police said. “And the main thing is, no one was hurt.”    And lucky he didn’t have a gun, like the young men in the most recent school shootings, whose justification for the shootings was that some girl had rejected their amorous advance.

Six or seven years after the man and the dog incident, it was the start of the fall semester of another of my sister’s sophomore year at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. A stiflingly hot, August day, she had spent many hours moving into a house she planned to share with three friends near the campus. That evening a thunderstorm was approaching, and at dusk her roommates all went out to watch the thunder and lightening move in across the corn fields. My sister, though, sweating profusely after a day of lugging around boxes, begged off the adventure. She put in another hour or so of unpacking, then lay down in the near 100 degree heat in her second story bedroom to rest. She fell asleep lying on top of her sheets, wearing only her underwear. 

She awoke some time later to a hand across her face and a man on top of her.  He had probably broken into what looked to him like an empty house, to rob stereos and anything else that looked interesting. Once in the house, he decided she looked like a nice plum to pick. He managed to pull off her underwear and was close to penetration when she fought him off. 

And then he pulled out a gun. “Stop fighting or I’ll shoot,” he ordered, aiming the gun at her head. 

When she continued to struggle, he pulled the trigger.

She cringed. 

The gun misfired. 

She took advantage of the attacker’s surprise to run screaming into another room, and he climbed back out the window he’d gotten in through.

It would be hours till her roommates got home. The phone was not installed yet, and no curtains had even been hung. Sure that the intruder would return to retrieve his pillowcases full of loot, which were lying in the hallway where he had abandoned them, my sister sat alone for hours in the dark at the kitchen table holding a butcher knife, not collapsing into tears until her friends returned home. 

When the police finally arrived, they determined that nothing had actually been stolen, so they were not really interested in pursuing the incident. They made a few half-hearted efforts to find her attacker, but gave up after a few weeks, so there was no arrest, no trial. “You shouldn’t have had the window open,” they said. They told her, “at least he didn’t actually rape you,” and she was lucky the gun misfired. 

We called her Wonder Woman and gave her silly Wonder Woman gifts, trying to emphasize how great it was that she stood up to the man; that she’d fought him off. The truth, of course, is that she’d have died on the spot if that gun hadn’t misfired. Her attacker was holding it inches from her head. The episode still haunts her; her  counselor tells her she suffers from PTSD. 

follow up

My sisters and I never saw our attackers put on trial. We spoke up. We tried to get justice.  Police, family and friends all knew that sexual assault had happened, but no one was punished. I am excited at the new energy in the feminist sphere. #metoo and #timesup are both powerful movements.  I am excited that the ERA – the equal rights for women – constitutional ammendment is getting closer to passage. But I fear that few, if any of the many sexual harassers outed in 2017 and 2018 will ever be brought to a criminal trial, much less found guilty, and even less likely punished with jail terms. I know deep inside, that nothing will change significantly until the penal system acknowledges the fundamental unacceptableness of gender violence.

Both my sisters are still haunted by their experience of waking up with a strange man on top of them. The Air Force cadets and women of our armed services who have been assaulted and then tormented for speaking up, have seen their entire life changed. The victims of Turner and Labrie likely still relive their experiences, as well. As will the actresses and production assistants assaulted  by Weinstein, Lauer and Rose. The lives of these women will never be the same; their peaceful, happy futures were stolen by powerful men, fellow cadets, Turner and Labrie, and unknown men who crept in windows in the middle of the night. 

The U. S. in the last three years has seen an explosion of complaints about sexual misconduct. Millions of women and men wrote and spoke and posted about Bill Cosby and Hollywood moguls and high level politicians harassing and even assaulting women and girls. But after a period of time for the outrage to die down, how much will change? Despite more than a dozen accusers, Bill Cosby’s first trial ended in a mistrial. There is some hope though, from the fact the second trial ended in a guilty verdict. 

But will Donald Trump or Charlie Rose or Matt Lauer—and on and on—ever face legal repercussions for their alleged misconduct? Or will powerful men continue to take advantage of attractive young women, and escape, even if found out, with little more than a slap on the wrist as punishment? Only days days after Matt Lauer was fired, I already heard a news commentator wondering aloud about how the accused men could be helped to salvage their careers. The speaker—on a radio news program—seemed full of sympathy at how an otherwise “brilliant career” was now damaged. Bah! What about the women who gave up on their careers because of the harassment and general hostility they faced in the workplace? Women who decided it wasn’t worth it, and went back to their hometown.

After all the revelations about these famous men, I am heartened by the voters’ message about Turner. Now, we should turn to the Labrie case, and keep up pressure for meaningful trials and sentencing for the famous entertainment industries harassers. 

It is clear from the Turner and Labrie cases that accusations are one thing; appropriate punishment is something else. Somehow when it comes to the trial, there always seem to be people who convince themselves that the women are probably exaggerating. Or that they likely had consensual sex then changed their mind and decided to take some man for all the money she could get. Or who just don’t want to damage some “promising” man’s career for something that they consider “no harm done.”

What we see is that whenever the public is drawn into a highly publicized sexual assault case, there is some outrage for a while, but there is no institutional change. The Hollywood led outrage is stronger than most I’ve seen, but will it change anything? Most of the perpetrators may be seen as successful men who just made some minor error in judgement.  Turner and Labrie have gone on with their lives. The high profile sexual assaulters will likely talk their way out of prison terms. I hope a few cadets will lose their commissions. But their victims and the many other victims, like my sisters, likely wake up in the middle of the night from time to time, shaking and trembling with dread.


“I believe that you are not the angel as portrayed by your counsel and the letters of support submitted on your behalf,” the Judge told Owen Labrie at his sentencing. “But neither are you the devil as portrayed by the prosecution.”

Was Labrie a devil? An angel?  I say, it’s not a relevant question. Neither he nor Brock Turner was either mythical creature. Devils and angels are religious/imaginary terminology, and do not belong in a judicial proceeding.  But speaking of angels and such, why are churches all over our country not speaking up? The tendency to believe the man, even against multiple accusations, or to minimize the trauma to the woman, is part of a general attitude—like “separate but equal.” No real harm done…

To my mind, if they are not part of the solution—whether they are churches or corporate CEO’s or judges—they are part of the problem. #times up on sexual assault.

So let us conclude with, it is #timetodotime. Women will never achieve social and workplace equality if men can assault with impunity. A slap on the wrist is not enough. Let’s make sure these men are convicted and actually sent to prison for their misdeeds. This means it can’t be just women who are outraged. Upstanding men, too, must speak up. And together we must demand trials and suitable sentencing. 

Preventing the Next Waffle House Shooting

Have you noticed the lack of attention about the Wafflehouse Shooting? There is scant media attention for the wonderfully brave James Shaw Jr., who stopped the shooter before the death toll rose and has raised money to help bury the victims. And I’ve seen almost no new clamor for changes needed–gun control and/or mental illness care–to prevent the next shooting. I think we’re becoming numb to mass shootings. The police captured Travis Reinking, the mentally ill young man behind this shooting, at the Wafflehouse in Tennessee, pretty quickly.  I feel so bad for the four young men who were killed, and for their grieving families.

You may wonder, how could Reinking, the shooter, have been arrested last year, identified as seriously mentally ill, and be walking around a year later with four guns?  I am not surprised. After my family’s connection to serious mental illness, I know that our system of mental healthcare is more confused than the people it is supposed to help. Also, it is pretty obvious that the 300 plus million guns floating around our population are out of anyone’s control. They are like the terrible virus spreading in a disaster movie, and it may be too late to eliminate the threat.

But there are ways to help contain it.

Obviously one way to reduce shootings is to make it more difficult for people to get guns. And I hope Congress will put forward and enforce legislation on gun control. Here, though, I want to focus on serious mental illness (SMI). These are people with schizophrenia and serious bi-polar disorder and the like. People with SMI make up about 4% of our population, but are behind about half of mass shootings.

Mental illness

Our care systems for mentally ill people do not take into account the fact that SMI is a chronic, and usually worsening condition. Someone who is mentally ill needs not only emergency care in an ER when they are having a psychotic episode, but also long term follow up care for the duration of their life. There is often an ebb and flow to the illness, and without monitoring and intervention when necessary, it can quickly escalate. Think of diabetes. A shot of insulin helps for today, but tomorrow someone with diabetes needs another dose, and the next day, and the next.

My brother had his first psychotic episode when he was sixteen. Over the next thirty plus years, he got worse and worse, despite all the hospitalizations, consultations, and medications he was given. Sometimes manifestations of his schizophrenia lessened, and if he didn’t talk, you might think he was OK. And then he’d speak, and within ten words you were well aware there was something really wrong with this man. Yet our psychiatric hospitals refused to keep him in their care; he was assigned to live in a so-called adult home–a terrible place that was like a mental hospital without any medical personnel–and told to show up at some clinic for help if he thought he needed it (which he never thought he did). He wandered around on his own recognizance, often scaring people in the streets and stores he frequented. Others like him live with their families, who may be terrorized and not know what to do.

As I wrote in the book about trying to take care of him (Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle) families are simply not equipped to care for someone who is delusional, ranting and raving, refusing to bathe, perhaps, or bathing 25 times a day. My brother was afraid of the people he saw in the streets or in restaurants; he was sure that anyone who caught his gaze for more than a second was trying to steal his soul. He would shift his eyes constantly, so that no one could succeed. He lost all his teeth in his thirties, his hair varied between shaved (in which case he usually thought he’d been scalped) or long and dirty. His thrift store clothes seldom fit and were even less seldom washed. But hospitals would not keep him more than two or three days, as there is no public mechanism for them to be paid for more than that.

People like my brother–and this shooter– need long term followup care after a hospitalization such as Reinking’s last year, after he was caught trying to climb over the White House fence with an AR-15.  Luckily, my brother never developed any delusions about a need to kill a bunch of people. But I often cringe at incidents like the Waffle House or Parkland shootings, knowing that if he’d had access to an AR-15 when he was in one of his delusional states, I don’t know what would have happened.

What to do about it

My sister, Ilene Flannery Wells, has put together a concise list of what needs to be done to improve the  treatment of people with serious mental illness in the U. S. (which I have amplified with suggestions from another mental illness care advocate, Kathy Day)

If you are part of an advocacy group, or if you would like to learn more about this issue or would like someone to speak to your group, please contact me. See also the wonderful work being done by the Treatment Advocacy Center, and the educational efforts of the Mental Illness Policy Org.

10 ways to improve care for people with serious mental illnesses

1. Repeal the Medicaid IMD Exclusion, which prevents Medicaid funds from being used at “institutions for mental disease.” It is discriminatory and is behind much of our failure to care properly for people with SMI.

2. Modify commitment laws to include grave disability instead of dangerousness. Treat people before there’s a tragedy. Recognize that the sufferer’s own need for treatment is as valid as the danger he might pose to others. This is especially true for those who lack insight and therefore can’t/won’t seek treatment voluntarily.

3. Reform use of HIPAA  privacy laws so that valuable family care givers aren’t left out of treatment plans.

4. Implement nationally the RAISE program, an early intervention program with wrap around services that is now in use in some parts of the country.

5. Use Clozapine earlier in treatment rather than having a person wait until they’ve failed on other drugs…it works! (Not for everyone, but it isn’t used enough and lives are being ruined because if it.)

6. Use cognitive enhancement therapies as soon as possible. Get it covered by insurance. Most of the difficulties a long-term sufferer of serious mental illness encounters, even after psychosis has subsided, is due to cognitive damage. CET  may help them recover.

7. LEAP training for all medical and police personnel, to prevent tragedies when they are called to help.

8. Permanent supportive housing–not just once a week social worker visits–for those most seriously disabled from mental illness.

9. Use telehealth for those who can’t get in to see a psychiatrist. First line care providers should link families to this source of information and counseling.

10. Funding for more neuropsychiatrists! This could include straight out funding and/or school loan debt subsidies. Often families can’t find a therapist who can take on another patient.

Be aware. Tell your representative you want them to do something to fix this. Call your members of Congress. Click here: Link to find your representative’s contact info

We can all make a difference. Advocate. Lobby your state and federal representatives. If each of us does one little thing, all the little things will add up.