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A mother’s story of why mental illness ‘should never be a crime’

March 21, 2018: In a recent #BriefButSpectacular episode, Jerri Clark told us about her son Calvin, who suffered from mental illness. Calvin died by suicide this week. He was 23 years old. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, visit Jerri’s group, MOMI - Mothers of the Mentally Ill, for helpful resources. If you are having thoughts of suicide, go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

Jerri Clark’s son Calvin was in college when his erratic behavior began, eventually leading to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. His run-ins with law enforcement convinced Clark that medical and legal systems have very little tolerance for individuals with serious psychiatric issues. She shares her brief but spectacular take on why mental illness 'should never be a crime.'

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mental illness can, of course, be a very difficult both for patients and their families.

    In a special episode of Brief But Spectacular, Jerri Clark, the founder of the group Mothers of the Mentally Ill, tells the story of her son, who failed to receive adequate support after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

  • Jerri Clark:

    My son Calvin is 22. He was very smart from a very young age.

    In high school, he got hooked into the speech and debate club, and immediately started winning awards. He was also really athletic. And we were so proud of him.

    During my son's freshman year of college, he was very confused, so we took him home, and he was talking and talking and talking in circles, when it suddenly occurred to me that this was probably mental illness.

    He was running around the house, and he became very concerned that our downstairs bathroom had been possessed. He did some kind of ceremony in there. He closed the door and asked me to never, ever go in that room again because it wasn't safe. And that's when I knew we were in real trouble.

    My husband got a call that my son had been found by highway patrol on the side of the highway, and he wasn't making much sense. My son said he thought the car would run off of his own energy.

    Drugs were suspected, so the officer took my son to a hospital for a drug test. Because he lashed out at the security guards at the hospital, he was determined to be a danger to others, and so he was detained under the Involuntary Treatment Act.

    In the state of Washington — and this is true in most of the states of the country — an individual in a mental illness crisis has to meet the criteria of imminent threat. While he was there, the initial hearing for his DUI charge came up.

    And so I called the courthouse and said, he won't be able to attend that hearing because he's being detained. The court said that an arraignment for a DUI charge was non-negotiable and that a bench warrant would automatically be issued for his arrest.

    Within a day of leaving that two-week hospitalization, he was as psychotic and manic as he had been before he went into the hospital.

    I called the county crisis office, and explained that I feared for my son's safety. And I said I can't call the police because there's a bench warrant for his arrest. They said, call the police. Go ahead, and let him get arrested, and then we will get him some help. They took him to jail and booked him on the bench warrant.

    And I immediately started calling to try to figure out how they were going to now divert him into the hospital, as crisis had explained.

    There was no legal pathway to do that. I had been misled.

    The next time I saw my son, he was on a video monitor from jail. I could tell by his eyes that my son was out of his mind. He was in a suicide vest, and he had a black eye and a fat lip. And he was talking in a robotic voice that sounded almost like a computer. It wasn't my son.

    He came out of the system much sicker. Up until that time, we had been terribly afraid for our son. During that time, we became afraid of our son. He came and banged on the door. He pushed past me and locked me and my husband out of our house.

    I believed that my son had finally met the threshold for involuntary treatment. So, I called 911, and said we had a medical emergency. And the police officer who talked to me sneered at me and said, "Your son will not be taken into care for a nonexistent mental health condition."

    I got a call the next morning from police, who had found him in the middle of the street wandering in traffic, and he said he was going to kill himself by lighting himself on fire.

    He finally met the illusive threshold of the Involuntary Treatment Act, and he was taken to a hospital. But Washington state didn't have any beds, so the ambulance took him across the river into Portland, Oregon.

    But, after five days, my son no longer met the threshold of imminent threat. So, they put him in a cab, and dropped him off at a homeless shelter. My son spent one night in that homeless shelter, got up the next morning, and jumped off the highway bridge into the Columbia River to kill himself.

    My son is a really good swimmer, and he told me later that, when he hit the water, he realized that it had been a mistake and that he had other things to do in this life.

    One week after my son was dumped at a homeless shelter by a mental hospital, he was arrested. I was deeply afraid for his safety, because I knew that he would be suicidal. The director of the jail was kind to me and connected me to the director of psychiatric services.

    The social worker, who is working through the public defender's office, was able to arrange a release plan for my son that includes housing and wraparound support. They are enthusiastic, encouraging, and amazing supports to my son.

    And they assertively help him with putting his life back together. My son right now is doing amazing, and I'm so proud of him, because he wants to make his life work and he wants to make his life meaningful.

    My name is Jerri Clark, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on why mental illness should never be a crime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We are so grateful for your story, Jerri Clark.

    Tonight's Brief But Spectacular was produced in collaboration with Olympia, Washington-based political reporter Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network.

    You can find a bonus episode with Jenkins on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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