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More care needed for mentally unstable

Sat., Aug. 11, 2007

On July 27, a young, paranoid schizophrenic, Josh Levy, 28, died jumping off the Monroe Street Bridge. After a 20-hour attempt by Spokane police to talk him down, negotiators learned that Levy was unpredictable, with a history of threatened suicide, and bridge suicide attempts and jumps in Western Washington, the most recent in May. Without medication, Levy’s paranoia was increasing.

Negotiators, fearing endangerment to officers, used a Taser to secure Levy when Levy came down to urinate. In an unfortunate twist, only one Taser prong made contact and, before officers could intervene, Levy jumped to his death.

My heart goes out to Levy’s suffering family. But I also support what the police did in their attempt to save him.

My brother Martin is bipolar/schizophrenic. He attempted suicide by police at least once while in a psychotic state. I don’t know how they secured him, but they saved him and possibly others.

Martin, a mild-mannered boy, two years younger than me, began taking hallucinogenic drugs in his early 20s, when such psychotic disorders emerge. Drugs and illness were a combustible combination. In 1976, at 23, he did three days of PCP (angel dust); his shady friends called me to pick him up, not telling me the score; Martin was unintelligible over the phone. Afraid, I had Mike, a male counselor friend, came with me. Violent and terrifying, with superhuman strength and spouting bizarre gibberish, Martin nearly crushed my head when throwing Mike’s van door open, before leaping more than seven feet across a lawn.

The next morning my dad, Mike, another friend and I, got Martin to a hospital psychiatric unit, where he was straightjacketed, strapped to a gurney and wheeled away. It was devastating.

But the roller coaster had just begun. Martin spent the next three years in emergency and psych wards, jails, halfway houses and on the street. No reasoning could connect; he was in an alternate reality.

The hours I spent with therapists and social workers in psych wards were futile. Our mental health system, particularly when it comes to containing psychotics for their own and others’ safety, is a ridiculous, rapidly revolving door. In California, involuntary holds were no longer than two weeks. Once “stabilized,” Martin was freed to toss his meds and commit dangerous mayhem.

Martin had a relatively peaceful period, supported by government aid and my parents. Then, in 1982, his psychosis re-emerged for another three years. He went to Florida and was arrested after pulling a knife in a bar. After nine months in jail and a prison psych ward, he was freed. A few days later, Martin went into a McDonald’s (falsely) claiming he had a bomb.

The state of Florida, tired of this nontaxpaying nuisance, administered “Greyhound therapy” – they injected Martin with a potentially lethal dose of Thorazine, gave him cash for food and put him on a cross-country bus to California.

Stress on family members is horrendous and can cause deep friction. During Martin’s second three-year episode, I realized my devoted efforts were ineffective and, burned out by crisis mode, I got off his perpetual tilt-a-whirl. My mother, in denial, never forgave me for “abandoning” him.

Martin, brain-damaged and dependent, has never been accountable for disability funds he receives; once he blew $2,000 of government aid on speed (your tax dollars at work). He receives medical care and meds on an outpatient basis, but no one ensures he takes them. Occasionally he goes off them and on another spree.

Who is at fault for the death of poor Josh Levy? Not Josh, cruelly directed by malfunctioning brain chemicals. Not his loving family who no doubt tried their best. Not the police, who desperately tried to save him with a Taser.

No, it’s our atrocious mental health system which is to blame. Western State Hospital deemed Josh Levy stable and released him on July 24, two days before he climbed upon the Monroe Bridge. With his suicidal history, it’s an outrage! How many nonfunctioning Joshes, Martins and psychotic street people must struggle and die before there is long-term safe, comfortable, dignified and affordable care for them? How many must suffer freedom they can’t handle?

Freedom for those with imprisoned minds is no freedom at all.


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