Julie K. Hersh

Struck By Living

Untreated Mental Illness Leaves Two Dead, One Life Shattered

Recent case in Dallas highlights the need for early detection of mental illness

Posted Nov 02, 2015

My phone lit up with a one-word text with a link to the article about Patti Steven’s death. Terrible. If you live in Dallas, the news has been inescapable. Dave Stevens, out for a morning jog on October 12, was stabbed to death with a machete-like blade by Thomas Johnson, a former football star. On October 26, a new headline hit the press. Patti Stevens, Dave’s wife, died by suicide.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This story impacted me as a runner, someone who has attempted suicide and who manages her depression. All I could think while reading these articles is how different the compound tragedy might have been if we had better tools to identify and manage mental illness. I don’t think this is another case of “stigma,” that misplaced word that I believe causes more fear and hiding than it cures.

Thomas Johnson’s case went undetected so long because those around him saw mental illness but could not name it. If this article "From promise at A&M to killing on White Rock Trail, receiver spiraled through madness" has any basis in truth, Thomas Johnson left a long trail of actions that highlighted mental illness, long before he resorted to violence. According to this article:  “Johnson had stopped getting haircuts and would not leave his room. That he would wear only white clothing. That his faith had morphed into religious delusions.” Be aware that sudden symptoms like these are signs of mental illness. Unfortunately the people around Thomas loved him, prayed for him, sheltered him, but it appears no one thought to take him to a doctor until late into the process. This spiral began in 2012 and ended in 2015 with a murder, a suicide and an arrest. Well-intentioned people may have missed an opportunity to avert a disaster that now has destroyed three lives.

We need to do better. We can do better.

A recent New York Times article explains a new approach to treating schizophrenia that incorporates low doses of medication, family education and one on one talk therapy to build social relationships and avoid substance abuse. The earlier the intervention, the better the result.

Imagine if Thomas Johnson, along with prayer and love, had adequate medical attention? Imagine if Patti Stevens, the wife of Dave Stevens who died by suicide, knew that after suffering a traumatic emotional injury, sleep, exercise, and food were critical to her mental health? We give suicide hotlines, but I don’t think I have ever seen an article on this topic that suggests sleep is critical under emotional stress and exercise helps regulate sleep. Imagine if there were a blood test or scan given routinely to victims of trauma that alerted family members that Patti was in a danger zone of hopeless thinking? As long as we wring our hands and romance Patti’s condition as a broken heart, people like Patti will continue to die. Patti had a broken brain that could not see until tomorrow. A brain that very likely could have recovered with time and appropriate medical attention.

No doubt that Patti Stevens gave those close to her every assurance of being okay as she demanded her right to privacy. I can’t tell you how many Survivors (those left behind after a loved one dies by suicide) tell me “I had no idea.” As one who has attempted suicide I can assure you that if we wait to the point of suicide attempts to battle mental illness, we are fighting a losing battle. Early detection and management of disease is the only way we are going to win the fight against mental illness.

This is a national blog and I can’t tell you where to call everywhere in the nation, but I encourage readers to research this in their area. In Dallas, Texas, if you see someone you love exhibiting dramatic changes in behavior, vast swings in weight, sleeping habit, sudden extreme religiosity or hallucinations, please do not wait for these problems to worsen before you take action. Texas Health Resources has a line that will provide a free consultation: 682-236-6023. UT Southwestern has an intake line: 214-630-7285.  If problems become very severe, take your loved one to an emergency room.

For someone you see exhibiting these strange signs of behavior, consider offering help. If someone were choking or clutching his/her chest in pain, most of us would have the consideration to ask “are you ok?”  and call 911 if necessary. Strangely enough, most of us hide in uncomfortable silence when it comes to behavior that appears to be mental illness. Be bold. Be compassionate.

Mental health is vitally important to all of us. Many of the things to help maintain mental health are basic and will help avert a long list of diseases. Do you have a mental health list? Here’s mine in English and in Spanish.

I challenge you to make your own list and to educate yourself on the signs of early mental illness.  There are many efforts underway to better detect and treat mental illness like the UT Southwestern Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care In time, we will have better tools to manage these diseases. Even today, with the limited tools we have, early detection and treatment can save lives.

If things were different, the village might have saved Thomas Johnson, but the village failed with well-intentioned ignorance. If you have read this article, you no longer have that excuse.

For more information about Julie K Hersh or Struck by Living, please see the Struck by Living website.

About the Author

Julie Hersh is the author of Struck By Living: From Depression to Hope.

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