Guns and the Mentally Ill

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Every time there is a major tragedy involving guns and mental illness there is the very predictable knee-jerk reaction. A large vocal group calls for more gun control while a smaller vocal group calls for better treatment of those with serious mental illnesses. Both sides think they have the answer and attention to the other side would distract from their cause, There are, of course, some who realize we need both. What everybody seems to agree on is that guns must be kept from people with mental illness histories. This is where I throw the bullshit flag.

To deny a right (granted to all other citizens in good standing) indiscriminately to anyone who has a mental illness history is clearly ignorant and discriminatory. What galls me the most is that the same people who claim there is often recovery from serious mental illness are fine with denying guns from anybody with any history. Can we recover or not? What do you really believe?

Some states have written their laws intelligently. The wording in the statutes talks about people currently having issues. Other states and federal legislation would ban guns from anyone who had ever had issues with a brain disease.

In Wyoming years ago, I went to a sporting goods store and purchased a high powered rifle for deer and elk hunting and a shotgun for birds and small game-$700 worth. When filling out the paper work I came across a question about mental illnesses. Because a friend from work from whom I was trying to keep my past psychosis a secret was with me, I just lied.

The next day by myself I went back and asked the shop owner if he had the statute on which that question was based. He did. By my reading, because I had been in a mental hospital, I could never legally purchase, own or possess a firearm in Wyoming. The shop owner insisted it applied only to people with current psychosis which it should. I kept the guns and did a fair amount of hunting in the subsequent years. Of course I was never a threat to commit mass murder.

I have quit big game hunting but would love to hunt turkey and haven’t yet sold my shotgun. So when I moved to Colorado I tried to find out how sneaky I would have to be to do this. I was unable to find Colorado’s statute about guns and the mentally ill on line so I called the county sheriff’s office. The deputy I spoke with is sure that it’s all right for me to own a shotgun and hunt turkeys. I would feel better if I could just find that statute

But look at my case. I haven’t had a serious psychotic episode since 1987. I grew up with guns. There were high powered rifles hanging on the wall in the dinning room in the house I grew up in. In a nearby closet were two shotguns. I always knew where the ammo was. I’ve used guns all my life. I’ve had numerous gun safety and hunter safety courses. I’ve never misused  a gun. In all reality there is no living person more responsible with a firearm than I. I’m far more likely to lose it long enough to punch someone in the face than to shoot someone. That’s because it was drilled into me from early childhood that one takes on much responsibility when he picks up a gun. They are like any other power tool-they must be respected-they can not be feared.

Clearly there needs to be more restrictions on firearms. Clearly people who are psychotic and or suicidal or have a history of violent behaviour should be kept away from guns. But many people who have experienced mental illness issues are doing well now and are just as responsible as anyone else. To deny us a basic right is ignorant and discriminatory.

There is another problem I forgot to talk about when I first wrote this blog. People believe we can prevent mass murder incidents by treating and or keeping guns from people with mental illnesses, but it’s not that easy. Studies confirm that people are most likely to act out in a violent manner during their first psychotic episode. In subsequent episodes, violence is not as likely. How does one write legislation that keeps guns from first time psychotics without keeping them from everyone?

Although in the cases of many mass killers one can look back afterwards and see signs of insanity, few people first encountering madness would recognize the signs or know what to do about it if they did. It’s easy to look back and say so-and-so’s parent or teacher or someone should have seen this coming and done something. That’s not realistic. People with no personal experience often don’t know what they are seeing or what to do about it. Even when someone does, the systems in most states are so broken that it’s next to impossible to do anything constructive anyway.

Although untreated mentally ill people are more likely than the general public to commit violence, it’s still a small percentage that do. While I favor better gun control and definitely treatment for the mentally ill and believe both would help reduce the frequency of incidents, let’s not go overboard with banning guns from anyone with a mental illness history. Their are many people with some history who clearly are not a threat to anyone.

We can and we should do everything we can to reduce the number of these incidents, I just don’t think they can be totally eliminated.

We can and we should.

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Stigma Does Exist and it is a Problem

by Joseph M. Bowers

Many of us are frustrated by the seeming endless availability of grant money for virtually useless anti-stigma pr campaigns when that money should go toward things like supported housing that do help significantly. We would usually prefer using the word discrimination where stigma is often misused. Also those of us with mental illnesses need to guard against self-stigmatization. Cost and availability are far more often the cause people don’t seek treatment, but stigma does exist and it is a problem.

Our community is more than 50% Latino. The local judge over mental health court and problem solving court has told me that his biggest issue in trying to help the sick people who come before him is the refusal of their families to support his efforts. The Latino culture is somewhat macho, ignorant about mental illness and very reluctant to admit that there could be any such thing in their families. I understand that stigma also runs high in the black community.

No one can convince me that our society’s response to mental illness would be as shabby if mental illnesses were thought of the same as any psychical illness or even Alzheimers or dementia.  What is that if not stigma and is that not a problem?

 

 

In Defense of Peer Specialists

by Joseph M. Bowers

There seems to be a fair amount of controversy about the effectiveness of peer specialists. A brief search of the literature fails to reveal overwhelming evidence one way or the other. I think a lot of the trouble is because the peer specialist is a fairly new position and his role has not been clearly enough defined.

I have taken the classroom training for being a peer specialist and volunteer at a facility run day to day by paid peer specialists. At this facility we do not treat people with mental illnesses. We are adamant in stressing that ours is not a treatment facility. What we do there is support people with mental illnesses. We listen to them nonjudgementally. We help them connect with available services, fill out forms, provide internet access and free coffee. We have support groups and regular activities like art group and cooking group. We are pro medication and pro treatment program. We get referrals from all the major professional service providers in town when deemed appropriate because we have demonstrated value under the right circumstances. We are paid by district court to support people in the judicial system in danger of losing their children because of mental illnesses and /or substance abuse. We spend a couple hours each week in outreach to homeless people in our communities warming shelter looking for ways to help those with mental illnesses and substance issues. We rent out a room to an individual recently released from the state hospital.

We are not and don’t claim nor try to be substitutes for professionals. We work with professionals and have professionals on our board of directors. Our current director is a retired forensic psychiatrist from the state hospital in our town.

We have some advantages over professionals. We are equals with our clients. It is not a professional-patient relationship. Our clients more readily accept that we get it having experienced much of what they are experiencing. During my stays in mental hospitals many conversations among us started: “I would never tell my doctor this but…Some things can’t be related to someone in authority without unwanted consequences but need to be talked about.

We provide hope. I recently had a couple of opportunities to talk about our organization with Dianne Primavera when she was campaigning for her current position as Lieutenant Governor of Colorado. She is a cancer survivor and commented that when she got her diagnosis the people she most wanted to talk to were cancer survivors. We can tell suffering people what has worked for us. We do empathize that we are not recovered. We are in recovery. Staying there takes work.

There is a terrible shortage of everything needed by our mentally ill population. To a limited extent we can fill in some of the gap. Our current popularity to some degree stems from the severe shortage of trained professionals.

I think when the studies have been done they will show better outcomes for people who have worked with peers and professionals than those who have worked only with one or the other.

 

 

 

Unlike Most Illnesses Mental Illnesses Engender Fear and Disgust Rather Than Empathy and Compassion

by Joseph M. Bowers

As a society we seem to have chosen to put mentally ill people in jails and prisons rather than hospitals and other treatment options. This is partly because of the failure of our mental health system, but the system has failed partly because we have chosen to let it fail. We have done this because of the nature of mental illnesses and public perceptions.

Mentally ill people act in ways that do not engender sympathy. We scare people and put them off with bizarre, some times violent behavior that is very hard to understand. Few things in life are as terrifying as the thought of losing your mind.

When people see someone who has, they often try to believe that this can’t and will not happen to them. They sometimes fortify this hope by demonizing the mentally ill: “They are weak lacking character and will power. I’m better than that. They had bad parents.” Mother blaming is still way too common. Also people often think that these cases are hopeless and trying to help is pointless.

Widespread public perception of the mentally ill needs to be changed. The way we react to mental illness must change if we are to claim to be a compassionate, civilized people. How do we do that?

D J Jaffe is a powerful and passionate advocate for the mentally ill whom I follow closely and for whom I have much respect. He believes we react so poorly partly because advocacy groups like NAMI downplay violence associated with mental illness. We need to scare society into action emphasizing how dangerous the mentally ill often are. I disagree. This is negative reinforcement which is rarely effective. We need positive reinforcement. Instead of emphasizing how dangerous untreated mentally ill often are, I would emphasize what an asset to society effectively treated mentally ill people can be.

We need stories of recovery-stories of hope. That’s where I come in.

On February 16, 1964 I turned 17 years old. I was very sick at the time. Before the end of February, I stole up the stairs of our house one night carrying a loaded shotgun intending to kill my beloved grandmother whom I believed was possessed by the devil. With her late husband she had raised me from infancy. There was no one in the world I was closer to, but she had to die I believed. I didn’t kill her through good fortune and instead spent the next two and a half months in a state mental hospital in lower New York State.

Four years later I was arrested for being in a stranger’s house in Middletown, New York. I had never seen that house before but believed I lived there.

Ten years after that I was arrested in Tucson, Arizona and charged with arson. I was burning part of my golf bag thinking I was destroying a dangerous and ancient demon.

In all I had more than 20 years of recurring psychotic episodes with lucid periods in between. With a medication change I have been mostly symptom free more than 30 years now.

Counter-intuitively I was very lucky in that I first got sick in the ’60s  rather than later in our history. In the ’60s we still treated people with serous mental illnesses in hospitals. I was also lucky in that I respond pretty well to treatment.

Between the lucid periods and the extended period mostly symptom free, I have lived a fairly normal, successful life. I’ve earned a B.S. degree from a major university and been married more than 43 years. My wife and I have raised three children all of whom are now adult productive members of society. I am retired from nearly 30 years in the power industry working mostly as a lab tech. I am living where I wish to live and doing what I wish to do.

I am not that unique. Sadly today most people need to commit a serious crime to get the treatment they need-much improved over what was available to me in the past. In the past though, it was much easier to get into treatment. I have friends who have committed serious assault even taken innocent lives who are very stable now with belated but effective treatment. They are making valuable contributions to our community.

What I want people to understand is that many people who are very sick, even dangerous properly cared for can be productive contributors to society living fairly normal, successful lives. When they go to the revolving door of homelessness and jail they are not only a danger to society, they are a loss to society of potentially valuable resources.

Not everyone responds well to treatment, but everyone can have the quality of their lives improved properly cared for. At worst someone requiring permanent hospitalization is less costly there than in the revolving door.

Society is a big time loser when we fail families dealing with serious mental illness.

 

 

 

 

My Views on Substance Abuse Have Evolved

Joseph M. Bowers

In December of 2015 I wrote a blog complaining about the federal government lumping together substance abuse and mental illness in the creation of SAMHSA. At the time, although opposed to the war on drugs and favoring treatment over criminalization, I tended to have a condescending attitude toward those with a substance abuse problem. After all, one chooses to use a drug at least initially.  No one chooses a mental illness.

Since that time I have talked with professional addiction councilors and taken more than 60 hours of classroom training for recovery coaching. I learned that most often addiction is accompanied by mental illness issues. Choices to use are often  made by people whose prefrontal lobes responsible for awareness of consequences are not yet fully developed and now we have an epidemic, caused in large part by false advertising and over utilization of opioids for painkilling. This information made me somewhat less judgmental.

Recently I have been visiting a young man whose mother in another state contacted the local NAMI chapter to which I belong. He will soon be released from a substance abuse treatment center. The center allows two hours of visitation one day a week. During the first hour professional councilors would talk with us visitors and play a TED talk on the subject of addiction of which I have now seen two. I learned a great deal from them.

The original idea of punishing people with addictions and rehabbing them by imposing severe consequences was based on a flawed lab study. Rats were placed in a cage containing only two containers containing liquids-one water and the other water with heroin. The rats almost all preferred  the container with heroin and most would continue going to that container enough to overdose. It was concluded that one use would almost always result in addiction. Only forced abstinence could possibly help.

Some years later another scientist wondered if the cage might be as big a problem as the heroin. He put the two containers in a cage that provided wonderful living conditions for rats-plentiful cheese, tunnels-everything a rat could want. In this cage almost no rats became addicted to heroin. They almost all stuck to the container with just water.

Then there was the Vietnam conflict. During our involvement more than 20% of our soldiers were heavily using opium and heroin. It was thought that our society would have a huge addict problem when they returned home, but a strange thing happened. Upon returning home, most of these people quit using right away. From this one might conclude that addiction happens not because of the addictive quality of the substance but when someone’s life sucks. When one’s life sucks, a person takes things that ease the pain at least temporarily. When things are going well, addiction is unlikely and uncommon. This TED Talk concluded: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is connection.”

At the end of a session one of the staff told a story I liked: Someone in a group of people held up a new, clean, shiny one hundred dollar bill and asked everyone who wanted it to raise their hand. Everyone did. Then he crinkled it up, threw up in the dirt and mud and just made a mess of it. Then he held it up again and asked everyone who wanted it to raise their hand. Again everyone did because they knew that whatever it looked like, it still had value. People with substance abuse and/or mental illness problems may be a mess, but they still have value. They are still worthy of love.

 

 

 

Should I Talk Openly About my Serious Mental Illness?

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Some years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet Dr. Fred Frese and watch him make a speech. At one point he asked, “Should you speak out about your mental illness?”  He answered, “Yes, if you’re over 65 and retired.”

I realized that that was exactly what I was doing. I was scheduled to make a speech about my experiences with my disease later that day to that same group. I was over 65 and retired from a pretty good job. This would be the first voluntary speaking engagement of my life. I was scared to death but determined to go through with it.

In 1964 shortly after turning 17 in a state mental hospital in lower New York State, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. More recently I have been diagnosed as bipolar 1 with psychotic features. For more than 20 years I experienced recurring psychotic episodes. I would get very delusional and experience grandiosity. Often I would have what Dr. Frese referred to as a messiah complex. Between episodes, I was as normal as I had ever been. If you only knew me between episodes, you would never guess I suffered from a serious mental illness.

My mother also had done time in the same mental hospital. These events were never spoken of by anyone in our family. I learned early on to keep quiet about it.

Keeping it secret, however, is impossible when one continues to have episodes. Over the years relationships were damaged, jobs were lost and opportunities missed because of episodes. They always seemed to occur at just the most God-awful times. (Is there a good time for one of these?)

Despite all this, I was able to marry, earn a BS. degree and perform pretty well at a variety of jobs. In 1981 I got a good job as a lab tech at a large power plant. At that time they didn’t ask about a mental illness history in the application form or the interview. Companies hadn’t yet started doing extensive background checks or personality profiles.

On the job i kept my dark history secret from everyone. Inevitably came an episode that resulted in my signing myself into a psych ward. My secret was out.

For the first time, an episode didn’t cost me my job. The company kept me on at my lab tech job. In nearly 30 years I never got a promotion though, possibly as a result. My job performance ratings were consistently exceptional.

When I retired and my three children were grown, out of the house and pretty self sufficient, I felt it safe to get serious  about finishing a book about my experiences, among other things, trying to remember and relate just what was going on in my brain when I was psychotic. Eventually I self published this as an e-book.

Trying to promote this book got me steering a lot of conversations to the subject of mental illness. Almost always when I did this the person I was talking to would start telling me about a friend or relative with a mental illness or their own struggles with an illness or alcoholism or some such. People have been grateful to be able to speak openly without fear of judgement. Someone told me she could much better understand her sister-in-law after reading my book. People struggling with issues alone have sought help after talking with with me.

For these reasons and many, many more; I speak out at every opportunity now. I am, of course over 65 and retired. I have with my wife of more than 42 years raised our children. My friends know all about me and the bazaar sometimes dangerous things I’ve done when psychotic. They choose to remain my friends. I’ve literally got nothing to lose.

I believe it important that people realize that there are many of us successfully dealing with serious mental illnesses and leading productive rewarding lives.

People with little personal experience think of the scruffy homeless person they saw talking to no one they could see when they think of mental illness. They don’t think of people like me. They think of a Jared Lounger without realizing that he too is a victim of a badly broken system.

Many people with serious mental illnesses can live lives similar to mine given proper treatment. Virtually everyone can have the quality of his or her life improved with proper care.

The system is a terrible mess today with need of vast improvement. This will not happen so long as prejudice and discrimination are widespread. As is usually the case with prejudice and discrimination they are mostly the result of fear and ignorance. The only way to combat that is through people like me speaking out, I believe. Only when there is widespread demand for change will change occur.

So yes. I believe I should speak openly about my serious mental illness. Everyone who can do so fairly safely should do so. I don’t ask anyone to risk career or relationships, but the public  can and need be enlightened.

 

 

 

 

Is a Blood Sacrifice Really Necessary?

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Last night I moderated a small family support group attended by three families. All three families have an adult seriously mentally ill child that they are trying desperately to help. One young lady suffers from extreme anxiety and depression. another young lady is psychotic, delusional and experiencing grandiosity.  A young man is also delusional experiencing grandiosity.

All three families are upper middle class, highly intelligent and successful. They have enough resources and desire so that one would think they could succeed in getting their children the help they need. The problem is that they are being stymied everywhere they turn by an extremely dysfunctional system.

The young lady experiencing anxiety and depression is in treatment and taking her medication. This has to date been only mildly effective. She is currently on leave from her job which she has performed quite well for some time. She is intelligent and competent, but she is afraid to go back to work. This lady gets in a place where she doesn’t believe she can do anything on her own and just wants to lie in bed covered completely by her blankets.

She has attempted suicide three times. Her mother believes that she wants to die. Even when seeming to have a good time, inside she wants to die. The mother believes that one day there will be a successful suicide attempt. To the mother there is no doubt that this girl is a danger to herself. Unfortunately most authorities have a very narrow definition of this. It sometimes seems like no one qualifies who isn’t holding a loaded, chocked pistol to their head or something of equal severity.

Before leaving the small town I lived in for many years in Wyoming, I was trying to get the local police forces involved in crises intervention training. Speaking with policemen I heard a number of stories similar to the one where a woman told the responding officer that she hadn’t committed suicide only because she had failed to find the bullets to her gun. Taken to the state mental hospital, she was released in less than twenty-four hours.

The young man experiencing grandiosity doesn’t believe he needs help. Already a felon because of his mental illness, he is in danger of being found violating his parole. Sadly going back to jail might be the best thing that could happen to him.

The lady experiencing grandiosity has been delusional for a very long time now. All the authorities know this to be true. She has been arrested and at least once put in the state hospital and stabilized. After her release she soon decided she didn’t need the meds and again became delusional. There was no support system. She wasn’t living with her parents. If she had been they wouldn’t have known what med she was supposed to take, how much or when her therapy appointments were. How is a care giver of an adult with mental illness supposed to provide adequate care?

As far as I can tell, the only people who get supported after release are those who have committed a serious crime, been found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the state hospital. Under these circumstances they get excellence treatment usually and great support upon release.

The girl is currently in jail waiting for a hospital bed to open up. The hospital is under tremendous pressure to open up beds because there are no where near enough beds to meet the need. When this girl is admitted, if she doesn’t have an NGRI she will be kept barely long enough to stabilize and turned out with no support system in place. AOT often requires a lot of work and commitment. Sadly her father fears that she has been psychotic for so long that she may be beyond help.

He has taken to telling people that only after there has been a blood sacrifice are the necessary steps taken with the seriously mentally ill. I have to wonder if he is right. Has it really come to that?

Treating the Whole Person

Joseph Merlin Bowers

About two years ago the managing director of the community center for people in recovery from mental illnesses where I volunteer asked me to drive two hours to Denver one mourning to attend a large mental health stake holders meeting. He felt there should be at least one consumer at this meeting. It had to do with a new emphasis being insisted on and implemented by federal medicaid people to treat the whole person rather than have people with mental illnesses in one box, people with psychical ailments in another and substance abusers in still another. After all people often have multiple issues. A person with a serious mental illness may develop diabetes due to lifestyle and or medication and self medicate with one substance or another. Often it is hard to determine which came first. This new emphasis sounds on the surface altogether logical, fitting and proper.

I, however, have been a consumer of mental health services since 1964. I’ve seen this kind of thing played out over and over since then. It always results in more funding, resources and attention being diverted away from those of us with serious mental illnesses in favor of psychical aliments, addictions and people in less dire need . By serious mental illnesses I mean schizophrenia, bipolar 1, major depression and any other truly debilitating mental affliction. With limited resources there is always competing needs and demand for them sad as that may seem.

I may have been the only non-professional consumer in this large room of a couple hundred people. In the mental health industry the term stake holder refers to people who attempt to treat the mentally ill and not the mentally ill themselves.

The federal people conducting this meeting of a hundred or do informed us that the purpose was for those implementing the new emphasis to gather input and ideas from stake holders. I had opportunity to put in writing my concerns and ideas. Talking with others during breaks, the events generally seemed to be seen more as public relations efforts than honest attempts at gathering information upon which to base policy and stricture. Most of us got the impression that the feds came in knowing how they thought this should be done and that was ultimately how it would be done.

When I moved to Pueblo in November of 2014, the largest provider of mental health services was a private organization called Spanish Peaks Behavioral Health. As a result of this new emphasis, they were changing their name to Health Solutions, hiring medical doctors and creating more facilities than just those for mental illnesses. We in the mental health community were assured that these new services would be self supporting and no funding or attention would be diverted from people with mental illnesses.

About a month ago, I was informed that I was being discharged as a patient by Health Solutions. A high up corporate decision had been made to stop seeing and treating people who have third party insurance. I am retired and insured by Medicare and I have supplemental insurance through the company I retired from. I was told they would still see me if I dropped my supplemental and replaced it with Medicaid. I wouldn’t qualify for Medicaid and I told them that I could guarantee them that they would get paid even if it wound up coming out of pocket. That didn’t matter. A new corporate policy was in place. The Health Solution personnel on the ground were very upset as they were loosing a lot of patients they were invested in, but policy was policy.

I have served on a board with a couple people high up locally and got their attention. There has been or will be a meeting of them and out of town corporate mucky mucks seeking clarification and explanation. My case will be or has been discussed. The last I heard the meeting was to take place yesterday, but I have not heard what transpired. I’m not optimistic.

In a related event Health Solutions announced that they are divesting of some mental health facilities and releasing 33 mental health personnel. I just hate it when one of my negative propheseys comes true.