ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
The shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and others have led to calls for a stronger mental health system. As of now, it's a tenuous network of hospitals and health care workers. People with mental illness can cycle among many providers. That was the case for 54-year-old Homer Bell, who killed himself in April. Jeff Cohen has this story of what happened to Bell, as part of our collaboration with WNPR and Kaiser Health News.
JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: You want to do everything, and yet there is very little you can do. That's how Harold Schwartz, the psychiatrist-in-chief for Hartford Hospital's Institute of Living, describes having a family member that lives with schizophrenia. It's hard to provide services, long-term housing.
DR. HAROLD SCHWARTZ: And you frequently are left to observe a deteriorating child sinking into homelessness, perhaps imprisonment, if not imprisonment, at least recurrent revolving-door hospitalizations.
COHEN: That describes the Bell family pretty well. When he was in his 20s, Homer Bell began hearing voices that would plague him for three decades. He was a religious man, and he tried to fall back on that for support, but the illness got to be too much. Several times he told people close to him that he was going to kill himself. And then on April 11th, he did. He put his head under the tire of a public bus. Homer Bell was 54.
ROSALIND SCOTT: He felt alone. He felt lonely.
COHEN: Rosalind Scott is Homer Bell's mother. I visited with her and her family recently. She said he saw doctors and clinicians, but he never seemed to get any better. She could only watch as her son struggled.
SCOTT: And he used to, you know, ask God, he said to himself, you know, I wish that these voices would go away. And I remember I had tears in my eyes, you know? So I can imagine - if you heard voices, I can imagine what a person goes through. You know, when you hear those voices, that would drive you crazy. And he's been like this for years.
COHEN: Thirty years, she says. Over that time he had run-ins with the police, he didn't always take his medications, and he thought people were following him. And keeping an apartment was hard, so he was in and out of treatment and homeless shelters.
SCOTT: He was in the Institute of Living, Connecticut Valley Hospital. He was back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, you know? That is the most horrible feeling for a mother and a father to go through, to see your son talking to himself downtown, you pass him by, the tears come out of your eyes. That's horrible.
COHEN: Homer's mother says her son, in the days before his death, had been to a hospital for help. But he got out after a day and then showed up repeatedly on her porch. One night, he was there barefoot, cold and frightened. She let him into the hallway to get warm, but it was hard to let him in further. He could be loud, he could be angry, he could be paranoid. His illness had exhausted her. One or two nights later, Homer Bell came back. His mother saw him from her second-floor window and this time, tired and wanting relief, she didn't let him in.
SCOTT: He was frightened. I saw that fear. Nobody understands what I'm trying to say. It's not the idea I feel guilty because he passed away. Maybe I couldn't have helped that. But what bothered me is no matter what nobody does, I'm still his mother. I was supposed to let him in that house to help him because I saw the fear, but I didn't know what to do. And then I went to the window, and I heard him said, I'm waiting for Mommy. I heard him. I'm looking at him. I walked away from the window. I said, God, what do I do? I said, jeez, I don't know what - I didn't know what I was going to do. I went back to the window, he was gone. That's the last time I saw my son. I just didn't open up the door. I didn't know what to do, maybe because I was tired...
LAURA BELL: There's a reason for everything.
SCOTT: I don't know the reason. I got to find out.
BELL: You didn't owe him...
COHEN: Laura Bell is Homer's sister.
BELL: You didn't want to be bothered. Maybe you didn't want to go through, you know, like the noise and all the stuff that he's been doing. You get tired of it. Of course, you didn't know he was going to do that, but he didn't do that because of you. He did that because he's been tired for years, you know? And I understand what he was going through was his mental illness, but that affects the family. And sometimes, we can't keep bothering with all that, like stealing and making noise and all that. Of course, you want to open the door for your son, and I want to open the door for my brother. But then you get to a point where, uh-uh. Not today. I'm not letting him in today.
COHEN: After Homer Bell's death, his mother and others in his family went to the Hartford police station. They told police they wanted closure. So the police let them watch the video of his suicide taken by a camera on the bus. Rosalind Scott said she watched the screen as her son ran across the grass toward the street.
BELL: He got on his knees.
SCOTT: Yeah. Got on his knees.
BELL: He was ready. He was - yeah.
SCOTT: He put his hands out...
BELL: And just got under the bus.
SCOTT: ...then he put his head under the bus.
COHEN: And that was it. Rosalind Scott says she saw in her son a man determined to kill himself. Homer Bell's mother got a flood of calls as news of her son's death has spread. As she listened to her voicemails, she found one from her son. He left it two days before his suicide.
SCOTT: I had about 60 or 70 calls, and I heard his voice, and I stopped it. And I kept listening to it over and over and over again, yeah. Over and over and over again to see what he had to say. And that's when he apologized to the family.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL RECORDING)
SCOTT: I wasn't here to pick up the phone to talk back to him. That's what bothers me too. I didn't get the opportunity to answer that phone. And I would have told him don't worry about it and I still love you. Even though maybe I could not have saved him, I just wanted to have the opportunity to say something, how much I cared and loved him. I just wanted to say that to my son. That's all.
COHEN: What, if anything, could have been done to prevent suicide? Maybe he could have taken his medications. Maybe there could have been more money for housing and treatment for those with mental illness. A clinician responsible for some of Homer Bell's treatment was not allowed to talk to NPR. His hospital cited privacy reasons. Harold Schwartz, the psychiatrist-in-chief at Hartford Hospital, is part of the post-Newtown conversation about Connecticut's mental health system. And here's what he sees: a lot of attention is now being paid to identifying young people who need help.
SCHWARTZ: I think the system is just so large and so complex and it would be so costly to try to fix the entire system that, with the best of intentions, the focus clearly is on young people.
COHEN: But when it comes to helping people like Homer Bell, the homeless, chronically mentally ill adult living in the community, he sees less movement. And then there's this.
SCHWARTZ: It's important for everyone to know that for some people, suicidal ideation and suicidal intent is a terminal illness. There are many things that we can do to prevent an individual from committing suicide, but we can't always do it. We can't always be successful.
COHEN: It's a reality, Schwartz says, that's often hard to hear. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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