How does one's beloved child become a mug shot in the local newspaper? This is our somewhat abbreviated story about the ravages of mental illness and the toll it has taken on our family, as well as millions of other families throughout the country.
Mental illness didn't appear like a thunderbolt out of the blue; it crept up on us slowly. When it became apparent that we had joined a club that we didn't apply to- one to which we could never have imagined ourselves belonging- parents of a mentally ill child- the guilt and sense of loss were overwhelming. But this was only the beginning of what has seemed like a never-ending nightmare.
Growing up in Palo Alto, our older son, Cory, had a normal childhood. In middle and high school, he was a highly motivated student, athlete, musician and debater with a passion for history and a well-developed sense of social justice. Along with these interests, however, there were some dark clouds on the horizon. Normal teenage angst? Probably, we thought, as we dealt the best we could with various incidents that were brought to our attention.
When our son left for college, we felt that negotiating his new environment would be a positive challenge for him -- a new beginning -- and that whatever problems he had would be resolved as he confronted them with increased maturity. This turned out to be anything but the truth; the onset of our son's mental illness began seriously affecting his decision-making ability. At the end of his junior year, he was asked to sit out a semester and get help. For us, this was the beginning of what has become a never-ending quest to connect our son with mental health professionals who could accurately diagnose his illness and help him regain some semblance of the life he was rapidly losing- much easier said than done.
Here we are 15 years later, still on that same quest. As it turned out, cleaning up the chaos of our son's life in North Carolina just after his graduation was only the beginning. During these 15 years, he has cycled in and out of hospitals and jails in four different states and two different countries. Wherever he landed, we sought contact with relevant authorities (psychiatrists, case workers, public defenders) to pass along our son's psychiatric history and to let them know that he had family members who loved him and wanted the best for him. Sometimes, our son would give consent for us to be in the loop, and we could then receive information about his treatment. But more often, he would not, as he held on tightly to the last vestiges of control that he had over his life. Along with many other mentally ill people, he has poor insight into his own illness, leading to non-compliance with medications and a reluctance to engage in therapy, making treatment all the more difficult.
We were horrified when we learned of our son's latest transgressions in Palo Alto, and we are very sorry for the people who were victims of these transgressions. To highlight the state of psychosis leading him to such extreme anti-social behavior, it should be noted that just after this series of incidents, he was involuntarily hospitalized by the Palo Alto police for an extended mental health assessment. We did the usual, immediately submitting our son's psychiatric history to Dr. Kahlon, our son's attending psychiatrist at Fremont Hospital, emphasizing the need for long-term care. In addition to our input, the Palo Alto Police Department provided the hospital with information about our son's recent behavior, strongly suggesting extended treatment under 24/7 supervision. Despite this testimony, and despite the fact that our son had been non-compliant during his entire hospital stay and was still psychotic, he was released after two weeks. Several days later, he was arrested in Santa Clara on an outstanding warrant stemming from the incidents in Palo Alto.
We continue to work with the Palo Alto Police Department to try to channel our son into some form of mandated treatment so that he does not endanger himself or anyone else. At this point, this seems to be the only way for him to get the help he needs in order to begin to reintegrate into society. We do not expect it to be a short process, but what price does society pay when we don't invest in this sort of treatment? It's common knowledge now that there is a disproportionate number of mentally ill people living on our streets and in our prisons, many of whom could lead productive lives if we, as a country, had the will to prioritize the issues surrounding this very vulnerable group of people. To not do so is to perpetuate a society that is already suffering greatly from neglecting the less fortunate amongst us. We are also endangering the public as we have tragically witnessed all too many times during the past several decades.
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn't mention NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has been such a valuable support and resource for us and for many families like ours who walk this difficult road. If anyone you know is suffering from mental illness, or you know of family members of the mentally ill who are seeking help, you can connect them to the local NAMI website (www.namisantaclara.org), or have them call the NAMI county office at (408) 453-0400 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. A trained volunteer will be available to answer questions and provide support.
John and Pat Jacobs are both retired teachers and longtime Palo Alto residents. Their son Cory was arrested Aug. 30 for several incidents of lewd conduct in Palo Alto.