Family works to improve mental health education

Published 12:59 am Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tyler Walker was the boy his classmates wanted to be. Popular and a straight-A student in high school, he excelled in sports and even won a scholarship to college.

In spite of his personal success, he would always lend a hand to those who needed it. He couldn’t pass by a person asking for money without giving something.

“He was a gentle, kind person,” his mother Teli Walker said. “And he was the guy who wanted to help the outsiders.”

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But when Tyler started college, he started drinking and using drugs. His parents thought he was just being rebellious.

“He’d never been the kind of person who did that sort of thing,” Walker said.

Eventually, the family recognized he suffered from mental illness and was trying to self-medicate.

“He was doing anything he could to make himself feel better,” Walker said. “Certain things can trigger the onset of symptoms of mental illness. It’s there, there’s nothing they did to cause it.”

A personal struggle

The stigma of mental illness hurts many who live with the disease. For years, Tyler was afraid to tell anyone about his symptoms, his mother said. And the longer you wait, the harder it is to control.

When Tyler came home, he tried reaching out to old friends. But they stopped dropping by the house, stopped calling, only worsening his feeling of isolation.

Then, he had what his mother calls a psychotic episode. He needed help. The only recourse the family had was the sheriff’s office. When the sheriff’s deputies transported him to Natchez Regional Medical Center, the doctor refused to treat him, saying he was making up excuses to get out of jail.

Tyler spent two weeks in the county jail until room became available at the state mental hospital.

The manner in which he was treated outraged the family, including Tyler’s grandmother, Opal Vines.

“Jails are not hospitals, and a hospital is where they need to be,” Vines said. “You wouldn’t take someone to jail for a heart attack.”

Cell bars, not beds

Tyler’s situation was not unique. Southwest Mississippi has no psychiatric ward. Many times when a mentally ill individual has stopped taking prescribed medications, the results can be disastrous.

The afflicted can become violent or engage in compulsive behavior. Either can be extremely disruptive to families, Adams County Sheriff Deputy Major Billy Neely said.

While families usually try to aid their ill family member for as long as possible on their own, law enforcement sometimes becomes involved, Neely said. That’s often the first step in a commitment proceeding.

“Families have dealt with this as long as they can when they call us,” he said.

The responding officer must first determine the threat level of a situation. If an individual has become violent or poses a risk to his or her own safety, that individual can be arrested and taken to the county jail.

That individual will be held in jail until a bed a state mental hospital can be made available.

While deputies must charge the individual with a crime in order to detain, they must also drop the charges before the person can be admitted into a state facility.

Neely said that individuals with violent criminal charges cannot be admitted into mental health facilities.

When deputies respond to a call with no signs of eminent danger, they can ask the chancery court to investigate the matter.

This is often an emotional time for the family, Chancery Clerk Tommy O’Beirne said.

“They have a need to commit, not a desire,” O’Beirne said.

If no space is available at the time of sentencing, then the individual can be charged with lunacy in order to be held in the Adams County jail until hospital space is available.

Sheriff Ronny Brown said this is not the ideal situation for either party.

“They don’t need jail, they need a hospital,” Brown said.

Cutting red tape

The closest the Miss-Lou comes to a psychiatric ward is Natchez Regional Medical Center’s geriatric psych ward, which cares for those older than 54 suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

There’s a great need in the community for inpatient adult psychiatric services, NRMC Director of Behavioral Health Services Tom Holman said.

“We’ve noticed a large number of patients coming through our emergency room that require adult psychiatric care,” he said. “The closest is either in Vicksburg or Jackson.”

The hospital would like to have a psychiatric ward, hospital officials said, but finances and state regulations currently prohibit that.

The state only issues a certain number of certificates of need based on a census population. Currently, all those licensed psychiatric beds are nowhere near Natchez.

“These 500 (licensed beds) could all be in one spot,” Holman said. “The problem is people in Natchez have to drive to Jackson or Tupelo because the beds aren’t here.”

Hospital officials are working with state legislators to pass a legislative amendment to designate a certain number of certificates specifically to Adams County.

“There’s certainly no guarantee (it would pass), but logic would dictate it would be the wise thing to do and a community service that is going neglected,” Holman said.

In the meantime, the only alternative would be for Natchez Regional to lease another hospital’s certificates. However, the license leases are expensive and hard to come by.

“Maybe a hospital has 40 psychiatric beds but have a daily census of maybe only 10,” Holman said. “They’re not just going to give you those beds. You have to lease the license number. In essence, you’re paying for something they got for free.”

Legacy and hope

When Tyler came home from the state hospital, his family took him to doctors around the state.

“Every doctor had a different diagnosis, every diagnosis came with a different medication, and every medication came with a different side effect,” Walker said. “It’s not like cancer. They can’t take a biopsy and say, ‘You have mental illness.’”

Tyler was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then eventually a form of schizophrenia. He finally found the right medication and was doing well, Walker said.

Tyler’s experience moved Vines to action. There were very few resources in southwest Mississippi for the mentally ill and their loved ones.

To change that, Vines spearheaded the formation of a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. The organization provides education and support for those who live with mental illness.

“For the rest of my life, this is what I will do,” Vines said. “This is my passion.”

Inspiring and helping others through NAMI would be Tyler’s legacy. Earlier this year, the 27-year-old’s body gave out.

“By that time, his anxiety and blood pressure were out of hand,” Walker said. “The meds alone had done so much to his system, his heart just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Tyler’s situation could have been, if not avoided, perhaps improved, Walker said. Had he not been afraid to tell people about his symptoms, had he not hid it for so long, things might have been different.

People should educate themselves about mental illness, just like they do about heart disease or cancer, Vines said.

“There are so many people in the community living with mental illness who are just like you and me,” she said.

Walker said she hoped people would be more compassionate toward those brave enough to tell people about their mental illnesses.

“Call them. Be accepting,” Walker said. “Don’t be judgmental. Just treat them like you would anyone else.”