Huffpost Media
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Robert David Jaffee Headshot

State of the Union of My Brain and Mental Health Policy

Posted: Updated:

Fifteen years ago this week, I plunged not only into suicidal despair, as I had in 1997, but also into a vortex of delusion. I have written over the years about the maelstrom I endured and braved in January 1999. I was not unlike a sea captain whose boat had capsized and who had to swim without a raft and without much of a life preserver through the vicious eddies of Hell Gate, the whirlpool at the convergence of New York's East and Harlem rivers.

I may have been swallowed up for a period of time, but I emerged from the experience alive: battered, nearly shattered in a psychic sense, but alive nonetheless.

Since then, I have had a few mishaps but basically I have tamed the severe depression and psychosis that afflicted me. I still take Zoloft and Abilify, and I am likely to do so for the foreseeable future. I am also still in therapy, as I have been on and off for roughly 25 years.

As much as I have been at times critical of the paper of record or the local paper of record here in Los Angeles, I can say that progress has been made in terms of media coverage of mental illness. A few years ago, the New York Times published its "Lives Restored" series on high-functioning men and women living with severe mental disorders. I would like to think that the Gray Lady's decision to do so was due at least partly to all the articles written by people like me, articles that have helped to de-stigmatize mental illness.

I was also pleased that the Los Angeles Times editorial page recently wrote a thoughtful lead editorial on Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was beaten to death by police in Orange County, Calif., in 2011. In the wake of the recent verdict, in which the two officers on trial were found not guilty of second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and excessive force, the LAT called for "a broad, statewide revamping of training and standards for such situations" where police encounter people with mental illness on the streets. The LAT editorial added that there is a need for "state legislation to force sluggish police departments to catch up."

I agree. In January 1999, when I was terrified that I was going to be assassinated, I stumbled into a local police department seeking help. Sadly, I was offered no counseling or assistance, only a jail cell.

I can only hope that fifteen years later, more and more police officers and other law-enforcement officials will learn from the tragic death of Kelly Thomas and work more in tandem with mental health professionals when dealing with those who are psychotic.

There are signs that this is so. As the LAT editorial pointed out, the LAPD has indeed "deployed" social workers with cops for the past fifteen years. And President Obama has brought a more compassionate and sophisticated tone to discussions of mental health in this country. As he once said, "words matter," and they do.

Unfortunately, studies show that many people in this country still view words like "schizophrenic" and "psychotic" as meaning that the person in question is violent when those terms mean only that the person has lost contact with reality.

And not all law enforcement organizations have implemented the reforms that have been taking place at the LAPD. Consider what happened to Miriam Carey, who was gunned down by the Capitol Police and Secret Service, after leading them on a harrowing chase through the streets of Washington, D.C.

As I wrote several months ago, at the time of her death, why couldn't members of law enforcement have disabled her car, or Tasered her in the leg, and then placed her on an involuntary 72-hour hold?

I was placed on such a hold in January 1999, and while I felt at the time that my rights may have been violated, I did get back on my meds in a safe place. That probably saved my life. The same policy could very well have saved Miriam Carey.

I recognize that it is difficult for law enforcement to deal with people who do not have a good sense of reality. But most of us who have suffered from psychosis are not a threat to others; rather, we are terrified that we are going to be harmed.

It does not help when, following a mass shooting, some TV pundits and anchors continue to ask as a first question: Did the suspect have a history of mental illness?

Why don't they ask at the outset if the suspect had a criminal record? That is a far greater indicator as to whether or not someone may be violent.

Overall, I am heartened by the improvements in recent years that I have seen in public policy and media coverage of mental illness. But there is still a great deal of stigma against the mentally ill.

While the late Kelly Thomas received an outpouring of support from the Orange County community and its district attorney's office, Miriam Carey did not get even that. Instead, politicians on both sides of the aisle applauded the actions of law enforcement who shot and killed a defenseless woman, a Kafkaesque victim, who, as I wrote last year, probably wanted nothing other than to clear her name.