Mental health woes getting new attention

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 25, 2000

In handcuffs and an inmate’s jumper, Joe Karen Bray stood in a Pike County courtroom in April waiting for officials to decide her fate. But Bray, a Summit resident, had not committed any crime. After a lifetime of mental health problems that have put her in an institution seven times, Bray, 57, spent eight days in a Pike County jail this spring waiting for a bed to become available at the State Hospital at Whitfield. Her husband, Gilbert, had had no choice but to charge her with a domestic disturbance in order to find a safe place for her to stay.

&uot;Jail is the best place for a criminal, and the worst place for a person who’s mentally ill,&uot; said Bray’s sister, Jack Kelly of Natchez.

But Bray’s experience in jail is not unique. With an overloaded state mental health system, many people committed to state hospitals must often wait weeks for beds to become available.

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While waiting, they often return home to their families or are held in jail because there is nowhere else for them to go.

&uot;That’s the worst part of it — having to go to the courthouse in all that,&uot; Bray said.

But families often have no alternatives, Kelly said.

&uot;No families are equipped in dealing with someone who is having a mental illness,&uot; Kelly said. &uot;It’s a most unpleasant thing, but you have no options.&uot;

National focus

The state is building seven regional crisis intervention centers that may help the problem, but in the meantime patients are still waiting for beds at Whitfield.

And problems with Mississippi’s mental health system will get national attention soon with stories on CNN and in Time magazine.

CNN producer Jeff Pohlman said the station will air a segment titled &uot;Mississippi Mental Health&uot; at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday, July 2, on the news program &uot;CNN and Time.&uot;

&uot;The focus of the story is taking a close look at how mental health operates in the State of Mississippi,&uot; Pohlman said.

In studying the problem, CNN has found Mississippi is much like the rest of the country because there is a backlog of patients in every state, Pohlman said.

In some of these cases, family members often have no choice but to charge their mentally ill relatives with a crime because the families are not equipped to deal with the illness.

The jail time also gives the family time to make plans to have their loved one committed to a state hospital and prevents them from hurting themselves or anyone else.

Law enforcement officials such as Natchez Police Chief Willie Huff, who will be featured in a July 3 Time magazine article on the issue, knows how important jail time can be to protect mentally ill people — and their families — while waiting for a bed.

In October 1997, Adams County resident Anthony Smith was waiting for a bed at the state hospital when he was arrested for murdering his brother, Charles B. Smith, his stepgrandfather, Johnnie Williams and injured his grandmother, Iola Williams.

In February, he was committed to Whitfield on a long-term basis.

Huff said the Natchez Jail has never held more than two mentally ill patients at a time, with an average of eight to 10 a year.

Help comes too late

Holding mentally ill patients in jail can help not only their families but the patients themselves.

Adams County resident Roy Dunigan knew he needed help for his mental illness, but a nine-week waiting list at the state hospital in Whitfield kept him from getting help in time.

The day a bed became available was the same day friends and relatives found his body hanging from a tree behind his aunt’s house.

&uot;You can’t wait nine weeks for someone who has mental, emotional or drug problems,&uot; said his mother, Hilda Lane, who remains frustrated at a system that could not help her only son.

During his nine-week wait, Dunigan attempted to take his life two times. His mother did not know she could seek help from Natchez police.

During the wait, Dunigan became frustrated and kept saying, &uot;Mama, they’re not going to call. It’s been eight weeks. They don’t care. Nobody cares,’&uot; Lane said.

&uot;I kept telling him ‘Mama cares and Mama still cares,’&uot; she added.

But on his third attempt at suicide, Dunigan was successful.

Despite efforts by his family to watch over Dunigan and remove drugs and weapons from the residence, he hung himself the week of Aug. 31, 1998.

&uot;Had there been somewhere to have taken him, I wouldn’t have to live today without my only son,&uot;&160;Lane said.

Because of the problems generated by the long waiting list, Matilda Stephens of the Adams County Lifeskills Center — an assistance center for mentally ill and mentally handicapped people – said her center does not work with the state hospital much.

Instead it places its clients — usually about two a month — in private hospitals if needed.

&uot;When you’re psychotic, to say you are going to wait six weeks or even four weeks — that would be like telling someone who has pneumonia&uot; it will be four weeks before they can get help, she said.

The quicker you can get a person into a facility the quicker they will improve — something she said state hospitals can’t provide fast enough.

&uot;We feel like our clients are too critical when they are in that condition,&uot; Stephens said.