Journalist Describes Life with a Mentally Ill Child Journalist Pete Earley talks about his struggles to get help for his son, who became bipolar while away at college. Earley says, unless a mentally ill person becomes a threat to himself or others, it's often difficult to secure any kind of treatment.
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Journalist Describes Life with a Mentally Ill Child

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Journalist Describes Life with a Mentally Ill Child

Journalist Describes Life with a Mentally Ill Child

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The parents of Seung-hui Cho had been in seclusion since last Monday's massacre. In a statement released yesterday, Cho's sister said, we never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence. Mr. Cho's parents may not even have known that long before this week's event, some of his teachers found his conduct alarming. They may not have known that the campus police had received several calls about him.

University officials are prohibited from contacting parents about disturbing behavior without the students' consent. Pete Earley is a journalist, the author of "Crazy," which chronicles his efforts to help his bipolar son, who first became ill during his senior year in college.

Mr. Earley joins me in the studio. Welcome.

Mr. PETE EARLEY (Author, "Crazy"): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: You have some personal connections to the events in Blacksburg. Could you just talk about that?

Mr. EARLEY: When I heard the news, of course, I merely called another son that I have who's a student there. He's a freshman at Virginia Tech and made sure that he was okay and fortunately he was. Then, of course, I thought about the people who were not okay, who we're finding out were being murdered. And then I thought about mental illness. Was this a case of that? And that was my fear because of the stigma that comes from these events because I'm the father of a son who has a severe mental illness.

WERTHEIMER: Your son's experience was while not at all the same does have some similar elements to the experience of this young man, Cho.

Mr. EARLEY: Well we don't know the diagnosis for Mr. Cho. We don't know if he was a psychopath or if he had a chemical imbalance, which would be bipolar, schizophrenia or manic depression. My son was diagnosed with bipolar while he was in college. And this is not uncommon among young males, that often arises between 18 to 24 and often is stress induced. He became psychotic. He was diagnosed. He was taking his medicine. He was doing great, then he stopped taking his medicine and became very ill. I raised him like any parent would do to an emergency room and this is where the similarities might come in.

I took him in. We waited for four hours and the doctor came in at Virginia, the same county, quite frankly, where Cho is from. And the doctor said, I can't help your son. And I said, you haven't even examined him. He has a history of bipolar disorder. He has a history of going off his meds. He's been hospitalized, why can't you help him?

And he turned to my son, he said, will you take pills? And my son said, no, pills are poison. He said Virginia laws are very specific, unless in an imminent danger, either yourself of someone else, you can't be forcefully medicated. You can't be treated. Then I said, he's talked about killing himself. And he turned to my son and said, are you going to kill yourself? And my son said, no. And he said, okay, bring him back when he tries to kill himself, or if he tries to hurt someone else.

WERTHEIMER: Unbelievable. That's an unbelievable reaction. But I gather that in the state of Virginia, the law is pretty clear.

Mr. EARLEY: Well Virginia is one of three states that still has imminent danger as the criterion. Most other states have changed it to a danger to self or others. Just dropping the word imminent could make a huge difference here. But that's only the first step, you know.

I took my son home. In the next 42 hours, I watched him get sicker and sicker and sicker. At one point, he had tin foil wrapped around his head. He thought the CIA was reading his thoughts. He slipped out of my house. He broke into a stranger's house. They went there to take a bubble bath. He was arrested. Four police officers wrestled him down. And when I went to see him, they said, look, we're going to have to take him to jail, unless you go in and you tell the psychiatrist that he threatened to kill you. And I said, he hasn't done that. They said it doesn't matter. To meet the criteria you have to do that. So I went in and I lied. And it was so frustrating because Virginia law had kept me from getting him help and now wants to punish him by charging him with two felonies.

WERTHEIMER: Once a child has turned 18, does a parent, I mean, did you in your situation have any control over his treatment?

Mr. EARLEY: No. In fact, because of HPA regulations, it basically…

WERTHEIMER: Health Privacy Act?

Mr. EARLEY: Yeah. The doctors are very reluctant to tell you what is going unless he gives consent. And when you're dealing with someone who may be psychotic and they say no, I don't want him to know anything, you, so frustrated as a parent because you can't intervene.

WERTHEIMER: What about colleges and universities? Do colleges and universities deal with this kind of thing at all?

MR. EARLEY: I was actually shocked and stunned. My son was going to an art school, and the reason I mentioned that is because bipolar disorder for a long time was known as the artist disease. It seemed to afflict people who are very artistic. Yet the school seemed completely unprepared for this. And the attitude was, gee, we're really sorry, can you get him out of here as quick as possible.

WERTHEIMER: Is it a liability issue? Is that the problem?

MR. EARLEY: Everybody has a liability issue. They are scared that if they knowingly have someone who has a mental illness, and they don't do anything about it, if that person hurts someone, then the school will be sued. Cho is the face of mental illness right now. But there are many other faces. 80 percent of people with chemical imbalances can be helped with the right medication and the right kind of treatment.

And that's the real tragedy here, as why aren't people getting help. Fairfax County, again where Cho is from, it's the wealthiest county in Virginia. It's one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. There's a two-month wait to get mental health services, in Fairfax County, a six-month wait to get a case manager. You know, that's despicable.

WERTHEIMER: But how did they get to be that way? I mean, all over the country, there are these big buildings that used to be mental hospitals.

MR. EARLEY: And they're all closing down. We have been closing down these huge asylums because they were horrible places, but mainly because of money. The state shut them down overnight with the institutionalization, as soon as the federal government said we'll start taking care of people through social security, through federal payment, people with mental illnesses.

And overnight there is no place for them to go. Where are they gone? They've gone to our jails and prisons. There are 300,000 people right now in jail and prisons with bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and major depression. Third, HMOs. Since 1997, two-thirds of HMOs are profit-driven. Psychiatric beds are not profitable, so they've done away with them.

I was in Orlando, Florida, yesterday. There was a guy in the jail down there, 25 years old, schizophrenic, long history of mental illness. He is kept in constant restraints, tried to kill himself repeatedly. The jail wants to get rid of him because he was charged with a misdemeanor.

There's no place to send him. Any other medical issue, you call an ambulance. With this, you call the police. That's wrong. We need to change it from criminal justice back into a medical issue. And I'm afraid the Blacksburg's situation is just going to increase the stigma.

WERTHEIMER: Pete Earley is a journalist, a parent, and he's the author of a book called "Crazy," which just came out in paperback. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Thank you very much for coming in.

MR. EARLEY: Thank you.

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