Prechter lecture discusses treatment of bipolar individuals in the criminal justice system

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 11:22pm

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File photo/Daily

Five days after World Mental Health Day, the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program at the University of Michigan hosted its 13th Annual Prechter Lecture. The program, part of Michigan Medicine, utilizes biological research to develop new mental health interventions for individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder and their families. 

Currently, over 3.3 million American adults suffer from bipolar disorder in a given year.  Of those diagnosed, nearly half will not receive treatment. Pete Earley, former Washington Post reporter and author of “CRAZY — A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness,” was the keynote speaker of the lecture, and focused his talk on his son’s experience with bipolar disorder. 

Earley’s son, Kevin, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while studying at the Pratt Institute in New York. Doctors informed Kevin and his family due to this incurable diagnosis, Kevin would struggle to maintain a job, a family, or even a normal life. He could also face a higher risk of run-ins with the law, homelessness and premature death.

Kevin’s first run-in with law enforcement was representative of how people with bipolar disorder are often treated in the U.S. criminal justice system. Earley recalled how police officers laughed at his son when he broke into a neighbor’s home to take a bath, and one officer advised Earley to lie to the hospital in order to get his son admitted. If not admitted, he would be charged with a crime. 

To keep his son out of the criminal justice system, Earley lied to the hospital and said his son had threatened to kill him. In New York, and in many other states, an individual with a mental illness must be either an imminent threat to themselves or others to be eligible for emergency treatment.

Weeks later, Kevin was still charged with two felony accounts of “intentionally destroying, defacing, and damaging property in excess of $100” and “breaking and entering . . . with the intent to commit larceny.” 

“What happened to Kevin is not some aberration — right now in this country, 2.2 million people with mental illnesses are booked into jail every year,” Earley said.

In the state of Michigan, the ratio of mentally ill people going to prisons versus hospitals is four to one.

Hoping to learn more about the intersection between mental illness and treatment in the criminal justice system, Earley observed the inside of the Miami-Dade County jail for 10 months. Earley spent most of his time in the suicide wing, which he described as overcrowded, freezing, and had water issues so severe that people thirsty from their medications drank from toilets.

“I’m talking about people who’s major crime is they got sick,” Earley said.

Referred to internally as the “forgotten floor,” officers admitted to Earley none of them received any training in mental health, and the majority were assigned to the wing as a punishment by their supervisors. 

After Earley’s investigation, Miami reformed their policies and has since seen decreased arrest rates and a 50 percent drop in recidivism. Earley argued much more reform is needed on a national level.

“If I had a broken leg, I wouldn’t call your police department and say help me fix this… so why are we depending on law enforcement to fix what is a community mental health problem?” Earley asked.

He recalled the story of Jamycheal Mitchell, a young African American man diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder. Mitchell was placed into a Virginia jail temporarily because all of the local hospitals were filled, and was subsequently “forgotten” for 101 days. Later, Mitchell was found dead in his jail cell, covered in feces. He had lost 48 pounds because officers denied him food for not obeying them, and had “wasted away.” 

Mitchell was found guilty of stealing $5.05 worth of food from a 7/11.

Earley explained through years of his son’s illness and his own research, he’s come to believe the best way to support those with mental illness is through stable housing, safe living conditions, reliable social support and hope.

“Treating the mind requires treating the heart,” Earley said.

In a Miami study on a population of 2 million, 1700 people were homeless, and of those people, all but 507 were eventually provided with housing. All 507 of those people had mental illness diagnoses and criminal histories. Earley explained people with mental illnesses are more likely to be convicted of a crime, and even misdemeanors disqualify them from receiving housing or public assistance. 

Earley wrapped up his lecture by calling on the audience to take action, and speak up for those facing mental illness and homelessness.

“People shouldn’t be shamed for mental illness, the only shame should be in not helping them,” Earley said.

LSA senior Sydney McKinstry is writing her thesis on a psychiatric hospital in the state of Michigan and was interested in getting a more humanistic perspective for her research.

“One of the interesting takeaways I got was the need for change from the bottom up,” McKinstry said. “I think a lot of times it’s easy to want to dismantle the institutions that we have . . . but after hearing him speak, it made me more empowered as an undergrad student to think maybe I can be one of those people to levy change.”

Earley’s lecture was followed by a panel with U-M bipolar disorder researchers and a participant in U-M’s longitudinal bipolar study, as well as Earley. 

The Prechter Program is in the midst of a longitudinal study using a cross-disciplinary approach to understand bipolar disorder and predict when in life problems are emerging in individuals with bipolar disorder.

Bobbi Gaspar, an Ann Arbor resident in attendance, has a 31-year-old daughter who is a participant in the study.

“We’ve been through all the stages the speaker has talked about, from ‘it’s the mother’s fault,’ to ‘there’s no mental illness, you’re just making it up,’”Gaspar said.

The panel discussed understanding diagnoses, health care reform, medical marijuana and how the criminal justice system handles the mentally ill.

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at U-M Debra A. Pinals and Earley both discussed the importance of talking about mental health care reform through economics, and not just emotion. 

“If we don’t address mental illness we will cost our society more money generally,” Pinals said. “We are starting to recognize that these are the very conditions that are driving medical care costs.”

After the event, Pinals told The Daily mental illnesses are most commonly diagnosed when someone is in college or has reached the typical college age. With bipolar disorder specifically, Pinals noted the warning signs are different for everyone, but often start with depression or erratic behavior. 

“The important thing is to have your network understand that this could be a sign of something . . . and it’s important for people to not be afraid to seek help,” Pinals said.