Where do the mentally ill live? Major shortfall in Arizona's system

PHOENIX - Deborah Geesling’s son had his first psychotic break when he was 18 years old.

“I was just totally devastated, she said. “We just felt like everything was falling apart.”

He is 22 now. Geesling asked us not to use his name to protect his privacy.

He’s been diagnosed with Schizo-Affective Disorder. It is one of several serious mental illness affecting 11 million people across the country. Among them: major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.

Geesling said caring for her son is a constant challenge. His behavior is unpredictable and unstable. As he grew up and became larger and more independent, he became harder to care for.

“We realized we can't live this way,” she said. “We cannot survive. We won't survive. We wouldn't make it.”

He was hospitalized four times before he was diagnosed and started receiving treatment. She said every time he went off his medications, his illness seemed to affect him more.

“When he would come home, it was just a very apparent loss of some part of him; part of his personality; part of who he really was,” Geesling said.

But, getting him treatment was just the beginning. Her greater challenge was and still is getting him long-term housing with 24-hour care.

“I want my son to have the right diagnosis. I want my son to be healthy. I want him to be stable,” Geesling said.

She said for her and many others, the system doesn’t provide for that. Without long-term housing with 24-hour care, many patients stop taking medications. Problems snowball as a result. Geesling said she thinks he would be homeless if he stopped taking his meds.

“Is he going to do something where the police are involved and something happens to him? Is he going to do something to somebody else,” Geesling asks.

CONGRESSIONAL HELP

U.S. Representative Matt Salmon met Deborah last year regarding her son. He is co-sponsoring a bill that would help families like hers.

“No family should have to deal with that [or] should have to go through that. We ought to be better than that,” said Salmon.

The bill is called The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. It is going through Congress now.

It is controversial and not getting the support it needs. It calls for some of the most aggressive changes in our nation’s mental health system in decades.

Right now, there are very few options for long-term care. Some patients reside at the Arizona State Hospital which is currently under state and federal scrutiny. There are group homes with 24-hour care, but most are only temporary. So, many patients end up homeless, living on the streets or in shelters. Off medication and homeless, some commit crimes and end up in jail or prison.  

“The system makes the parents and families feel like it's their fault. And that homeless shelters and jails are actually appropriate and good options of care and housing,” said Geesling.

Chick Arnold agrees. He is an attorney and mental health advocate who recently settled a 30 year lawsuit against the State of Arizona on behalf of Arizona’s seriously mentally ill population. The settlement includes additional housing like group homes with 24-hour care for 1,200 patients and then more in the future.

“Is there a shortage? Absolutely. Is there enough housing to meet the need? Absolutely not,” Arnold said.

Geesling's son is currently living in a group home, but it is only temporary.

“We are constantly told this is only temporary. And, every 60 days we pretty much have to justify why we think he still needs to be there,” Geesling said.

She says there is pressure from his network provider to move him to a less-restrictive subsidized apartment. But, it would not have 24-hour care or supervision. Geesling worries if he lived in one of those apartments, he would go off his medications immediately. And without meds, he would not be able to take care of himself.

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