Christmas Then and Now

About five months after my family moved to Switzerland in 1959, my mother went into labor early, with what we thought would be her eighth child. After three weeks of complete bed rest, the surprise twin babies – eighth and ninth – were born Christmas Day.

How auspicious!  Paul was so beautiful, with his blond curls and long, lanky body!  Even his fingers were long and elegant.  Ilene, two pounds smaller than Paul, was tiny and had straight dark hair and intense dark eyes set into a little round face.  She looked like the Japanese dolls friends had sent us from Japan in the early ’50’s.

The twins were baptized a few weeks later in a tiny, Medieval stone church in the nearby town of Versoix, each of them dressed in a piece of the Christening gown my father and the older seven children had been baptized in.  My older sister Sheila and I (first and second of the brood) held them for the service, filling in for the official godparents, who were back in the States.

On Christmas mornings, for all the years that the twins were growing up, the ten of us kids (our tenth – and last – child, Julia, was born two years after the twins) woke before dawn. We waited at the top of the stairs in our pajamas, our dog Charlie whining and whimpering in the excitement, until Mother and Dad went downstairs and turned on the tree lights.  Once they gave us the go-ahead, we all rushed down to the living room, big kids looking out for little kids, and opened our presents in a frenzy of ripping paper and squeals and barking and the beeping and clanking of new toys.

Someone put Christmas music on the record player.

O little town of Bethlehem/How still we see thee lie./Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by.

 … Our one perfect day of the year.

After presents had been opened, we older girls helped Mother fix a big breakfast of bacon and eggs that we ate in the dining room.  The candles on the Advent wreath, changed out from their pink and lavender to red in honor of the day, blazed all morning.  There were too many of us to go to church together, so those who hadn’t been to Midnight Mass drifted off to Mass in twos and threes.

From noon on, Christmas changed over to the twins’ birthday. Following family birthday tradition, Ilene didn’t have to help with dishes or set the table, the usual girl chores.  Both she and Paul got to laze around in the living room and ask other people to bring them a soda or a glass of juice while they played with their new toys or watched some old movie on TV, which they got to choose.  At dinner, while Dad read the gospel from the Christmas Mass, Paul and Ilene got to relight the red candles on the Advent Wreath.  Mother carried in the roast beef with great ceremony and placed it in front of Dad, and the twins got their pick of the roast – they usually chose the ends, valuable mostly because there were only two of them – and they were served first. Our ten sequined, red felt Christmas stockings hung from the dining room fireplace mantle.  Above them, the little brass angels of the Swedish chimes, pushed by the rising heat of little candles, clanged against bells as they swung by.

Dessert was always the same – two layer-cakes in the shape of a Christmas tree, one white, one chocolate, both of them made from Betty Crocker mixes and decorated with green frosting and little globs of red, blue and yellow frosting made to look like Christmas tree ornaments.  After the dinner plates were cleared away, Sheila, Mary Grace or I would go out to the kitchen to light the candles on the cakes. The twins would squirm and grin kitty-corner from each other at the long table.  When we gave the signal, Johnny or Patrick would turn off the lights and start the singing and we’d deliver the cakes and birthday presents by the light of all the candles.

Fast forward to today

The above is an excerpt from Shot in the Head, A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle, my memoir about my family, and more specifically about taking care of my brother, Paul.

Little did we know back in 1970 when the ten of us posed for this picture – that’s Paul petting our dog, Charlie – how it would all turn out.  Our beautiful baby Paul grew into a handsome teenager, full of promise…

…until he succumbed to a psychotic episode at age 16. Christmas was never the same again for our family.  Despite frantic efforts to get him psychiatric care, Schizophrenia killed the brother we knew and left in his place a confused, delusional man, who had no more than a few scattered minutes of sanity ever again. And his situation worsened over the years, as most of our psychiatric facilities were closed and fewer and fewer facilities were available for the care of those most seriously ill. 

Our system of care for people with serious mental illnesses in our country is simply not working.  4% of our population suffers from a serious mental illness, and many of them, like my brother Paul, never really recover, even if they stay on medication. Only about one-third of people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover, a third cycle in and out, and a third never achieve any appreciable recovery. Many of these are homeless or in jail, due to the lack of appropriate care facilities and supportive housing.

Ilene’s Christmas Birthday Wish

Over the past few years, the families of people like Paul came together and let our congressmen and senators know that we wanted them to end the IMD exclusion, a provision of Medicaid that prohibits providing benefits – i.e. funding – to people being cared for in an “institution of mental disease.” So far, even when the 20th Century Cures Act was passed, it did not address this issue. But although the provision has still not been repealed, Alex M. Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services has recently released instructions allowing the States to apply for a waiver to the provision, which will allow them to care for seriously mentally ill people in the hospital, if that is what their illness requires.  This is a step forward, but not enough. The most seriously ill, like my brother, however, need supportive housing. It is as important a component of their care as their medications. But because of the IMD, long term housing for mentally ill people still cannot include supervisory and medical staff.

A psychiatric nurse who works in a county upstate told me once that they saw the same mentally ill patients cycle onto their ward over and over again. “It’s David again,” they’d say to each other when the call came in that a psychotic man had been brought into the ER. Or Cheryl, or John… They knew what drugs worked the last time, so they’d get him or her stabilized in four or five days, then release them to a taxi with a paper prescription, $25 and one night prepaid in a local motel. They would be back in a month or two.

Hospitalization, stabilization, release, decline,
psychosis, fights, rehospitalization or jail.
No day clinic, no pretense of psychiatric care.
You’re in charge of yourself.
Let someone know if you’re feeling bad.

Nothing to do and no supervision.
300 men and women living in one building,
Delusions, mania, confusion, despair.
Somebody crashes, now there’s another
Police car stops. They’re off with my brother.

Hospitalization, stabilization, release, decline,
psychosis, fights, rehospitalization or jail.

My best wishes to all for a happy and healthy holiday season.

To learn more about schizophrenia and what is needed to improve care for people with serious brain disorders, visit the websites of the Treatment Advocacy Center and/or Mental Illness Policy Org.

To learn more about possible supportive housing options, see my blog with that title on this WordPress address.  Let’s make 2020 the year we help the mentally ill homeless off the street and out of hell-hole “adult homes.”


Male Myth and Guns

Where does the urge by young men to strap on powerful guns and shoot up a bunch of strangers even come from? Why do young men keep doing it? Why are they so angry?

For a possible answer, we might take a look at our society’s major myths. In the Western world, the familiar myths that help us make sense of the people and events around us glorify male archetypes, heroes who tamed wild, unknown lands. I’m thinking of the notation at the edge of old maps that say things like “Beyond here, there be dragons.” Often the myth that fuels our perception of events is that of the redeemer— the young man who journeys far from his home to fight unknown foes and come back to his home as a hero: Odysseus/Ulysses and Perseus in classical times; the Lone Ranger, Luke Skywalker and Spiderman in ours. This kind of hero uses his superior strength, intelligence, skill with weapons, and the favor of the gods to tame evil giants, one-eyed monsters, and greedy evil-doers.

The problem is that today, most of our worlds have been conquered. And so our continuing reverence for this kind of myth creates a tension that cannot be resolved without making trouble for society.  It no longer serves our tamed and heavily populated world. Yet, to the extent the brave warrior archetype is the one which fills young peoples’ imaginations, men will want to be the warrior and women will want to be with the warrior. All young people want approval, and hopefully admiration, of their peers and parents. But allowing this kind of myth to fuel their approach to the world only gets us all in trouble. this kind of thinking helps young men up so they face setbacks as if they have just drunk ten cups of coffee. They want to DO SOMETHING NOW!!  They don’t set themselves to studying and planning and working with others. They come to believe that strapping on a semi-automatic weapon and shooting the people at the church or synagogue down the road or their high school will somehow vanquish society’s enemies. Yet the real evil we must face is more likely to be a pervert in the apartment in the next building or a greedy corporate raider–not to mention climate change woes–not a one-eyed giant in a strange, far-away land. 

Now, before you start, YES, we have way too many guns floating around in the U.S.A.—an estimated 400,000,000 of them, including 10,000,000 – that’s millions – assault-style rifles, capable of shooting over 40 bullets in one minute.  We thoughtful people can’t seem to get our lawmakers to hear our demands for sensible gun control legislation.   And YES, some of these shootings are committed by people who are mentally ill. But it is a very low percentage, less than the occurrence of serious mental illness in the population. (And, by the way, we are doing almost nothing to help these people before a tragedy occurs. See my blog Following up on Parkland) And YES, violent video games might give people ideas. But women play video games, too, and they almost never commit mass shootings. 60% of Japanese people play these video games—more than in the U.S.A., but they hardly commit any gun violence at all. Men in European countries and Canada face problems with their jobs and anger over perceived unfairness in the workplace, but they hardly ever engage in shooting sprees.  So how do we make sense of this?

In the U.S. we are seeing the convergence of three problems: the availability of firearms,  the build-up of these economic and social provocations and stressors and a third factor—a lifetime of hearing and seeing this conquering hero archetype projected around them over and over again. The combination is deadly.

We need new myths.

There are still new worlds to explore and conquer. It’s just that they will not be discovered or explored by superheroes, cowboys and adventurers. The new worlds we face as a society will be explored by teams of people working cooperatively, depending on their intelligence, reasoning ability, and support teams—like astronauts, who depend on an extraordinary team of scientists and technicians to make their giant leaps for mankind. It will not be by loners, acting on their intuition, innate skill, and big guns. There are no one-eyed cyclops out there for us to shoot and save the world in an instant. We need great stories that give praise to intelligence and reasoning ability, skills that will fuel the ambitions of young men and women going forward. Our new heroes will be scientists and people who can lead people to work together to solve such problems as infrastructure needs and mitigating the impact of climate change.

How much happier the young men of our society—and the people around them—would be if they were raised to praise and wish to emulate the good father, rather than the man who abandons his family to have adventures. how much happier and better off if our young men held as their idea not Odysseus, but more like the Jimmy Stuart character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or if they were raised to emulate the idealism and self-sacrifice of Jimmy Stuart again in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, making a difference without a gun anywhere in sight. Those movies were very popular in the past, but more recently have been replaced by comic-book strong, independent men or X-men who have no family responsibilities and who chase evil-doers with guns blazing. They’re not even pretending to try to get back to Penelope.

I think our society recognizes that the lone hero archetype isn’t quite right, but it doesn’t quite know how to fix it. Let’s all try.

Post Script

And where shall women find heroines to emulate in the old myths? There’s certainly no place for a lady in any of them, at least not as an actor having the adventures. another reason for some new myths. But my thoughts on that will have to wait for another day. Coming soon.

Not Thinking About Schizophrenia

Nobody really knows why the universe exists or how it came into being. But people through the ages have felt obliged to come up with theories and came to call them truth.

Nobody knows if our belated efforts to slow global warming will make any difference in the long run, but great efforts are made in the name of science

Nobody knows what will happen to our spirits at death. But people through the ages have devised theories and called them revelation.

Nobody knows – – so many things.

Do you know how a squirrel can manage to leap six feet through the air to get to the top of my bird feeder?

Or why mothers and daughters argue and so often carry resentment like a badge?

Or how to face caring for a parent or sibling who is slowly dying?

Do you know why 1.1% of the world’s population develops schizophrenia? Or why my little brother Paul–he, of the ten of us siblings–was one of the unlucky ones? Or why as a society we have abandoned people like Paul? Why is out of sight, out of mind, unless it’s your brother? Why are our mentally ill brothers and sisters dying in the streets? Why aren’t we doing more?

Nobody knows.

What I do know is that it is easier to try to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions or to theorize how the Big Bang may have reverberated through space, than it is to search for answers to what drives the human psyche. That may forever be what nobody knows.


Mother’s Day

My younger brother Paul suffered from severe and treatment-resistant schizophrenia. He developed the illness at age 16, in 1976, and never really recovered. He was frequently delusional and paranoid, and sometimes threatened violence. But our mother never gave up on him, always believing that one day soon, a cure would be found. It was our job to keep him safe until then.

At the onset of Paul’s illness, psychologists still tossed around terms that blamed the mother in some way for the condition. The terms “smothering mothering” and the “schizophrenic mother” were bandied about in pseudo-scientific literature. At other times mental illness was often blamed on repressed homosexuality or an Oedipal complex – Freudian beliefs still popular in some circles. And in many people’s heads, it was linked to the sufferer’s own sinful ways or to some God-assigned stigma. Mother knew this was nonsense – or tried to believe it was nonsense, and carried on, determined to do her best for her son.

Paul’s care was often hampered by lack of funding and accessibility to good care. Because of the many false beliefs in the general population, insurance companies were permitted to set lower lifetime limits for expenditures on medical care for mental illness and higher co-pays – often 50%. This is how my parents reached the point that they could no longer afford to care for Paul themselves. After about 18 months, after mortgaging the house to the hilt to pay hospital and doctor bills, they were forced to sign him over to be a ward of the state, and he was committed to a state psychiatric hospital. But no sooner was Paul admitted, than hospitals began to close. Little by little, the less severely ill were released.

The nineteen seventies and eighties saw a public zeal to release all mental patients from mental hospitals. I had been living in Minnesota when Paul became ill, but in 1981, I moved back to New York State to be closer to my family after a divorce, and I began to become involved in his care. I found that New York had already begun to empty and close all the state mental hospitals. This wasn’t unique to New York; it was a national trend. Beginning as a trickle, the great emptying had become a torrent by the mid-1980s. The United States had 340 public psychiatric beds available per 100,000 people in 1955; by 2005 there were only 17 beds per 100,000. And hospitals still continue to close every year, across the country. Much of this shrinkage in capacity at psychiatric hospitals during these years was a result, direct or indirect, of the introduction in 1954 of chlorpromazine (Thorazine), the first effective antipsychotic, which made it possible, for the first time, to control the symptoms of schizophrenia and thus discharge some patients. Paul was on Thorazine and similar medications for many years.

By the mid-1980s, the doctors treating Paul were well aware that a neurological component was primary to the disease; it was not a behavioral issue. Doctors were also well aware that not everyone benefitted from the new medications; some still needed long term, supportive care. But despite the rapidly growing body of knowledge that pointed clearly to biological, neurological causes, old stereotypes persisted, and they took form in efforts to release all patients from mental hospitals.

During this time, well-intentioned do-gooders, as my father called them, had sued New York State to close down the huge state institutions, made infamous by investigative reporting on places like Willowbrook, on Long Island, where developmentally disabled people had been mistreated. This movement was intensified by an aspect of Medicaid: its reimbursement schedules were written to withhold payments to large mental institutions, accelerating the closures nationwide. New laws called for smaller, more humane, community-based residential facilities for patients needing long term care. One by one the old hospitals closed; a few homes were built for people with Downs Syndrome and the like, but no one wanted crazy people in their neighborhood. Almost no smaller facilities were built for people like Paul.

The shrinking population of those suffering from the most serious mental illnesses rattled around on a few floors of hulking, ancient hospitals, many of them built a hundred years before as sanitariums for people with TB. Paul’s hospital was one of them, with bars on the windows and double sets of locked doors. We felt bad for him, but we knew he would be unable to care for himself on his own. The former patients who were released often ended up in slumlord- operated single room occupancy buildings (SRO’s) and adult homes, where they were still confused and unable to care for themselves and now had no supervision. The streets of New York and other big cities suddenly were full of mentally ill homeless people wandering around, sleeping in doorways, dying of exposure or getting arrested. Eventually, our prisons filled with mentally ill people who, only twenty-five or thirty years before, would have been humanely cared for in an institution—people who by law should have been cared for in new, smaller, community care facilities.

Every time there was a story in the papers or on TV about one of them, Mother cringed. A mentally ill man pushes someone off a subway platform. A mentally ill homeless person wanders the streets of New York City pestering passers-by, is killed in a bar fight, is found frozen on the streets…

Mother would steel her mouth into a thin line. This will not happen to my son. I couldn’t stop him from going mad, but I can try to make his life as good as possible, within its limits. She volunteered at the hospital library. She stopped by the ward on non-visiting days. My son is not alone, her presence said. I am watching. She joined NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a new organization which advocated for both patients and their families. Her focus at that time was always on making the remaining hospitals comfortable for Paul. We couldn’t imagine that he would ever be released.

Determined to keep her son safe, Mother stayed tuned in to public hearings and release meetings – sort of like parole hearings – at the hospital. She showed up for all of them, ready to insist that Paul stay hospitalized. “You can’t just release him. Transfer him to a nicer, smaller place, yes. But I can’t handle him. He’ll set fire to the house. He’ll get into bar fights. He’ll hurt someone,” she told anyone who would listen. She wrote letters to our Congressman and State Assemblyman.

Sunday after Sunday, Mother made the one-hour, forty-five mile, drive up Routes 684 and 22, from White Plains to Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center so often, she could recite every gas station, restaurant, fitness center, farm, antique shop, motel, bank, diner, lumber supply store, army surplus store, church, fast food joint, office park, bakery, school, ice cream stand, car dealership, nursery, and garden supply store along the two-lane state road. My house was about halfway between Paul’s hospital and Mother’s home in White Plains. She would visit Paul in the early afternoon, then stop off at my house for dinner. Her Sunday visits to Paul and me became a ritual.

Mother also made sure we included Paul at all our family gatherings, often making the long drive to pick Paul up for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner herself, and ferrying him to my house or my sister’s house for the afternoon. For his birthday she made cupcakes for the ward. He’s your brother, she would say to us. We can’t abandon him. He needs us.

Our mother died in 1993—too young, at only 71, leaving advocacy for Paul in the hands of his siblings. I  have often thought that if she had taken half as good care of herself as she tried to do for her son, doctors might have dealt with her cardiac condition before her sudden death. I’m ashamed to say we were not as diligent about Paul’s care as she had been; within a year after she died, Paul was released—delusional, confused, and unable to care for himself. We siblings tried to advocate for him with social services agencies, etc., but what he needed was supervised care. It didn’t need to be at the hulking psychiatric hospital, perhaps, but there were no smaller, community-based long term care facilities for him. And so began his downward spiral—group home to ER to group home. We siblings did what we could for him, tried to make sure he got medical care, and stood by him when he developed cancer. Unfortunately, he died at age 48, in 2008. Eleven years later, we still advocate for better care and speak out in his memory.

And on Mother’s Day, I remember my mother and thank her for not only her unstinting efforts to care for her son, but also for teaching her children our responsibility to care for those who need help.


When Medicaid was passed into law in 1965, it took on from the states about 50% of the burden of caring for indigent people like Paul, who until this time had been housed in institutions funded completely by the states. But a little known part of Medicaid was something known as the “IMD exclusion.” Medicaid will make no payments to any institution for mental disease, or “IMD.” An IMD is defined as any facility of more than 16 beds where more than 51% of its patients between the ages of 21 and 65 are being cared for by reason of severe mental illness. Nursing homes caring for elderly Alzheimer’s patients are not impacted, nor are institutions caring for young patients suffering from mental retardation or illnesses.

While the IMD exclusion may have been meant to ensure that mental patients were not warehoused in huge institutions, in practice it made it impossible economically for state facilities to care for the people most severely afflicted with diseases of the brain. Not only is a facility precluded from being reimbursed by Medicaid for the individual’s day-to-day care, but individual patients’ eligibility for Medicaid is canceled while they are inpatients in an IMD. Consequently, to receive treatment for medical disorders not related to their severe mental illness, they must be discharged from the IMD, have their Medicaid eligibility reinstated, be treated in a medical/surgical setting, and then be readmitted to the “IMD”  Not do-able.

The number of people still needing hospitalization did not shrink as much as the hospitals did. Many people, like my brother, were not helped significantly by the new medications. They remained delusional and unable to take care of themselves, and often too prone to violence to permit their care at home.  Experts in 2016 estimated the U. S. still needs about 50 beds per 100,000 people to care for those suffering from the most severe forms of mental illness. With a population of 310 million, that means the United States needs 155,000 psychiatric beds but had only 53,000. Those seriously ill people have no residential setting to care for them. Many of them have ended up in prison.

In 2014, as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare), demonstration projects in 15 states temporarily lifted some of the IMD restrictions. Under new leadership at SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more temporary stays are underway. Hopefully, the relaxation will help demonstrate that our current system of non-care, pretending that people like my brother Paul don’t exist, makes no sense. What needs to happen is a complete elimination of this arbitrary exclusion.

Who knows? Perhaps one day soon, a cure will be found. It is our job to try to care for our loved ones until then.

Further information regarding the status of Federal legislation and treatment standards for serious psychiatric illnesses may be found at  SAMHSA and The Center for disease control CDC

More information can be found at Mental Illness Policy Org. MIPO

To join the effort to advocate for better care for our mentally ill loved ones, visit the National Shattering the Silence Coalition website NSSC

Note: This essay draws from The Great Emptying, a chapter of my memoir about taking care of my brother, titled Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle.

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.


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.