K Jung
Source: K Jung

18 hours.

That’s how long Brandon was out of jail before he tried to murder his mother. He slammed a pillow over Michelle’s face. When she fought back, Brandon pummeled her, leaving her left eye swollen shut and her lips bloodied.

Brandon wasn’t angry with Michelle. There had been no quarrel.

Brandon, diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was psychotic. He didn’t know Michelle was his mother. He said she was Aaliyah, the singer who years ago had died in a plane crash. Brandon said his name was C-Murder and that his family was looking for him.

Brandon, charged with rape, had spent the prior year in the Johnson County Adult Detention Center. He was held in solitary confinement. His jailors worried he would hurt himself or others. He yelled constantly. He pounded on the doors. He stopped eating. Unable to understand the legal proceedings, a judge declared Brandon incompetent. When the woman recanted, charges were dropped on condition of a plea bargain, an agreement someone declared incompetent wouldn’t understand.    

On the day Brandon was released from jail, Michelle was homeless. Unbeknownst to Michelle, the court had issued a no contact order against Brandon for battering her. Brandon never should have been released to her. Still, the corrections department offered to do so on condition that she take him to Johnson County Mental Health (JCMH) for evaluation. Michelle loved her son and was desperate to help him, so she agreed.

JCMH said Brandon wasn’t sick enough for inpatient care. He needed medication, but a doctor wasn’t available to see him for 3 weeks. Because Michelle and Brandon had nowhere to live, JCMH offered motel lodging for a few days. Over the next 12 hours, Brandon became increasingly anxious. His spacey eyes and childlike behavior scared Michelle. She called JCMH three times, frantically begging for help. JCMH did nothing.

Help came for Michelle only after Brandon nearly killed her. For Brandon, there was no help. The police hauled him back to jail. Months later, after again being declared incompetent, Brandon was moved to the state hospital where he’s lived for 5 months. He doesn’t understand why he’s there. When Michelle explains, Brandon cries, “Momma, I would never do that to you.”

In the protective environment, Brandon is healthier than he’s ever been. Medications will have the effect of returning him to competence. Then he will go back to jail and the system will fail him again.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A new bill providing real solutions for America’s broken mental health system is working its way through Congress. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646), introduced by Tim Murphy, Ph.D., the only clinical psychologist in Congress, has bipartisan support. This act would keep people like Brandon in treatment and out of jail. It would empower parents like Michelle to get help for the children they love. H.R. 2646 would increase psychiatric beds and improve the quality of community behavioral health services.

Some people think mental illness isn’t real. Michelle knows otherwise. She recognized something was wrong with Brandon from the time he was 4. He didn’t meet the developmental milestones his twin sister had. He didn’t dress himself. He dragged his leg. He wasn’t toilet trained. In kindergarten, Brandon’s teachers were frightened by his wild behaviors. Diagnosed with a learning disability and ADHD, an IEP was established and medications were started.

At 9, Brandon’s yelling and scary behaviors landed him in a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Over the years, medications that included Strattera, Risperdal, Seroquel, and Depakote were tried. Michelle says some helped, but Brandon refused to take them. Injections made Brandon’s eyes bug-out and his muscles tense. A black single mother whose husband had committed suicide when Brandon was 11, Michelle worked hard as a Certified Nursing Assistant to support Brandon and his sisters. She recognized Brandon’s problems, and did everything she could to help him. Brandon was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for close to a decade.

To be sure, some have voiced opposition to the lifesaving provisions of H.R. 2646, worrying civil rights may be violated. Most of the opposition, however, is based on misunderstandings of the broken mental health system and false assertions about the costs of the proposed changes. Groups understanding mental illness, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and American Psychological Association, laud the bill.

Some families walk away from mental illness. Others are pushed away. Michelle’s not going anywhere. She’s fighting to get Brandon and others like him the care that’s needed. This week, as Congress meets to markup H.R.2646, please help Michelle and millions of parents like her. Call your representatives and ask them to support H.R. 2646.

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