A Holiday Wish For The Mentally Ill Too often, those who suffer from serious mental illness end up in the penal system instead of receiving treatment. Writer Michael Judge has this remembrance of his brother, whose schizophrenia led to suicide.
NPR logo A Holiday Wish For The Mentally Ill

A Holiday Wish For The Mentally Ill

John Judge kneels in his football uniform during his freshman year at the University of Iowa in 1979. John committed suicide in 1982. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Courtesy of Michael Judge hide caption

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Courtesy of Michael Judge

Michael Judge is a writer and freelance journalist. He lives and works in Iowa City, Iowa.

In the winter of 1978, my brother John walked through the front door with a Christmas tree he said he found in the middle of the road. "It must have fallen off of somebody's car, or off the back of a truck," he said with a mischievous grin. He was 18, a 6-foot 4, 235-pound All-State defensive tackle. The tree was big, but he was bigger — a gentle giant with kind, hazel eyes.

A few years later, John was diagnosed with schizophrenia and took his own life. I think of him this Christmas season, and the tree he gave to the family that year, because his daughter Lindsay just gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Tatum June Huntington. This is not John's first grandchild. He now has three: the oldest, Jack Joseph, is 6; Tanner is 2.

John married young and was blessed with perfect twin daughters — Kristin and Lindsay. They don't remember their dad, but I wish to God they did. He was larger than life, and full of love and laughter.

But as I grow older, I better understand why he did what he did.

Schizophrenia and other forms of serious mental illness afflict millions of Americans — 1 in 17, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. New medications like clozapine and risperidone have given many a second chance at life. But those who go untreated often end up in our jails and prisons. According to a 2006 study by the U.S. Justice Department, 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates suffer from mental illnesses.

Michael Judge is working on a memoir about his brothers. Wall Street Journal hide caption

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Wall Street Journal

This April, a 24-year-old Iowan named Mark Becker was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his former high-school football coach, Ed Thomas. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Becker heard voices that told him the beloved coach was a "devil tyrant." Becker saw the murder as "an act of God."

My brother John, who was recruited by Hayden Fry and received a full scholarship to the University of Iowa in 1979, was also severely delusional before his death in 1982. He believed he was chosen by God to heal others. Once, guided by voices, he tried to run 100 miles to be nearer to our aging grandparents. When the police finally found him, running alongside the interstate, his feet were bruised and bloodied.

John said goodbye to his family before he ended his life with a .22 caliber bullet. He told us to tell others his story. He didn't want his girls to see him sick, or worse, hurt them or anyone else he loved. He ended his life to protect us, his final act of love.

In some ways, John was right: He was chosen to help heal others. His story has been told by my mother, June Judge, a tireless advocate for the mentally ill, hundreds of times to thousands of people. John's story has saved lives, and helped many get the treatment they need.

But John's work, our work, isn't done. This Christmas, far too many inmates in America's jails and prisons suffer from mental illness. Our tax dollars are better spent treating them than incarcerating them. Once treated, many can lead productive lives — hold down a job, raise a family.

With the right care and treatment, we can spare them this sacrifice.