Today our son, Cody, turned seventeen. Seventeen.
Today is his birthday and just like every kid on their birthday, Cody is excited. He is growing up and he knows he is just one year away from the magical age of eighteen.
When Cody thinks about eighteen, he sees independence and the freedom to make his own choices. He sees nothing but promise as he imagines the possibilities for his future. Today he’s just one year away. For Cody this is a very happy day.
I wish I felt the same.
On one hand I do. I see promise. For the first time in several years, Cody is doing well in school, he has started a part-time job so he is gaining work experience, and he is considering what life will look like after high school. Cody is thriving. There is definitely promise.
But on the other hand, I feel dread. Fear rises in my chest and tears sting my eyes. I am scared. I am sad. I am angry.
Today we are one year away. This is it. We are running out of time.
Cody suffers from mental illness. He has bi-polar disorder. And now, after years of frequent hospitalizations, terrifying phone calls to the police, and a constant battle for care, he is finally receiving treatment. He is living in a treatment center out of state. There won’t be a birthday cake this year and we won’t get to celebrate. A deep sadness fills my my heart, but our family is blessed because we are receiving care. Many families are not so fortunate. Despite the sadness, we are the lucky ones. Cody is recovering.
But next year Cody will be eighteen and while he sees freedom and independence, all I see is a broken system that will abandon my child and leave him on the streets or in a jail cell to die. Mental illness is not treated like any other illness in this nation. Mental illness is the only illness that has an age limit for care. Treatment is hard to come by at any age, but once a person turns eighteen the options diminish entirely and family members no longer have a “say” in their loved one’s care. Our nation has traded hospitals for jail cells; we have traded compassionate care for the cold, harsh elements of the streets; we have tied the hands of parents and caregivers. Yet somehow we have managed to convince ourselves that these options are better than treatment; that somehow these options preserve a “patient’s rights”.
Well I want more. My son and every son or daughter who suffers, deserve more. No family should fear having their loved one arrested because of an illness. No person should be denied access to therapeutic and compassionate care. No family should dread the day their child will age out of treatment. Mental illness is an illness and just like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, treatment should always be available.
Thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope. Last year, in response to the Newtown Tragedy, Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) proposed a bill: HR-3717, The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. HR-3717 is a bi-partisan bill that currently has 115 Co-Sponsors and it will fundamentally change the way mental illness is treated in our nation. HR-3717 will give my son and my family a chance for recovery, a chance for continued treatment, a chance for help, and a chance for hope. It is a comprehensive plan designed to overhaul our failed system and it is the first bill to focus on accessible treatment for the most severely mentally ill.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (HR-3717) includes these provisions:
- Fund Pilot Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) Programs
- Preserve enough psychiatric hospital beds for patients who need them
- Remove HIPAA handcuffs so parents can get the information they need to provide care for their mentally ill loved ones
- Ensure mentally ill are not denied access to the best medication and treatment
- Jail Diversion: Train Police and Establish Mental Health Court
- Allocate resources for suicide prevention
- Create a Deputy Secretary for Mental Health to focus spending on Severe Mental Illness
- Reform SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and CMHS (Center for Mental Health Services)
- Reform Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Programs (PAIMI)
- Strengthen the National Institute of Mental Health
Our nation needs this bill. When it comes to mental illness we are missing the mark. We sit idly in the comfort of apathy and denial and then wonder why there are so many tragedies. We cried over Newtown. We watched in shock over the Aurora theater shooting. We were devastated when Robin Williams took his own life. Every day we walk by someone’s son or daughter left on the streets to die. We watch in horror but we sit back and do nothing. We are all affected and it’s time to wake up. It is time to take action. It is time for a change.
Today my son turned seventeen. Seventeen. While this should be a day of excitement, sadly, it fills my heart with fear. We are one year away from losing access to care. We are one year away from the harsh reality that if Cody relapses or has a bad day he could be arrested and considered a criminal instead of a young man with an illness. We are one year away from being stripped of our voice in his treatment.
I am scared. I am sad. I am angry.
Today our son turned seventeen. We are one year away.
Are you the parent of a child or an adult child who suffers from mental illness? Have you felt afraid? I welcome your comments and stories. Please post them in the comment section below. Together our voices become stronger. Together we can bring change.
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