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News / Health / Clark County Health

Clark County mothers fight for mentally ill children

Vancouver woman’s experiences with her bipolar son lead her to form group, work with Inslee for change

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor, and
Wyatt Stayner, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 27, 2019, 6:05am
6 Photos
Jerri Clark sorts through her son’s medical records at her Vancouver home. Her son Calvin Clark, 23, was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder a few years ago, and in that time, his and his mother’s lives have been characterized as a roller coaster ride of hospital stays, mental health clinics visits and run-ins with the criminal justice system. Now, Jerri Clark is a champion for the group Mothers of the Mentally Ill, which is pushing for meaningful changes in the state’s mental health care system.
Jerri Clark sorts through her son’s medical records at her Vancouver home. Her son Calvin Clark, 23, was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder a few years ago, and in that time, his and his mother’s lives have been characterized as a roller coaster ride of hospital stays, mental health clinics visits and run-ins with the criminal justice system. Now, Jerri Clark is a champion for the group Mothers of the Mentally Ill, which is pushing for meaningful changes in the state’s mental health care system. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Two years ago, Jerri Clark and her son, Calvin, found themselves in the midst of one of the worst times of their lives.

Calvin, then 21, jumped off the Interstate 5 Bridge into the Columbia River while experiencing a mental health crisis — miraculously, he survived.

He was previously diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. Before he jumped, he had been incarcerated for months at the Clark County Jail for a bench warrant and received treatment at Western State Hospital, an inpatient psychiatric facility in Lakewood.

He was once an honor student and member of the debate team at Mountain View High School. He graduated with a college scholarship and toyed with the idea of studying law. But his bright future took a sharp turn during his freshman year in college.

Calvin left college after suffering symptoms of a suspected mental illness. His life since then has been characterized as a roller-coaster ride of hospital stays, mental health clinic visits and run-ins with the criminal justice system.

“I had to really grieve the loss of the vision that I had for my son,” Jerri Clark, of Vancouver, said in a January 2017 interview after months of correspondence with The Columbian.

The Clarks’ story is just one of many for Washington families struggling to find proper and timely care for their mentally ill loved ones. When those challenges are coupled with big bureaucracy and a family member who’s unable or unwilling to help themselves, the situation can feel hopeless.

Although it’s been a long and arduous journey for Clark and her son, their fight is really just beginning.

Since discovering, firsthand, the state’s troubled mental health system, Clark, 53, has become an advocate for improving care for people with serious mental illness. She leads the advocacy group Mothers of the Mentally Ill, more simply known as MOMI, which is working closely with Gov. Jay Inslee and his staff on mental health issues. Inslee unveiled a budget and policy plans this legislative session to fix the state’s mental health system in the coming years.

“It’s almost like my son had to fall through most of the cracks to get the whole picture of the problem,” Clark said.

To get here, Clark said she realized she had to be the change. She’s spent 20 years studying yogic dharma — the life’s purpose or calling — and said she can’t deny that this is hers.

“I believe when things happen, you either answer a calling or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’ll always feel a little out of sync with your life,” she said tearfully during an October 2018 interview at her Vancouver home. “I do feel my life has prepared me for this.”

Calvin’s crisis

Calvin was arrested in October 2016 in Clark County on suspicion of DUI. He ran out of gas on Interstate 5 and was having a psychotic episode, his mother said. The officer who found Calvin recognized he was experiencing a mental health crisis and enacted the involuntary commitment law, because he was a danger being behind the wheel.

Calvin was transferred to a facility in Eastern Washington because there were no beds available locally. While there, he missed court, Clark said, and an arrest warrant was issued.

The hospital released Calvin prematurely, Clark said, and he was still psychotic and dangerous. He needed emergency services when he returned home, but Clark was told that her only option was to take him to an emergency room or call 911. She called for help; but, because of his warrant, police took him to jail rather than diverting him to a hospital.

“That’s the part that just blows my mind. The criminal charge is always going to trump a civil service,” Clark told The Columbian in a January 2017 interview. “There’s a great divide between the criminal and civil systems.”

The next few months would prove to be nothing short of a nightmare for Clark and her son.

“It’s really hard to advocate from the outside when your ill family member is a legal adult. There’s not a lot of provision in the law. It’s a whole string of laws and local policies that get in the way of everyone’s good sense and judgment,” she said.

The Clark County Jail is not set up to require medications without a court order, Clark said, and inmates who have a psychiatric illness rarely volunteer to take their medication. It’s a Catch-22, she said, because people displaying dangerous behavior due to mental illness go to jail and don’t get better.

“It felt very shaming, and I knew that’s not where my son belonged and that the system was malfunctioning badly,” Clark said of visiting her son in jail.

A District Court judge ordered that Calvin be sent to Western State Hospital, but there were no beds available, Clark said. He had already been in jail for five weeks and waited another week-plus before he could get treatment.

Clark bailed him out in December 2016, and then his case was dismissed a month later, after results from the toxicology lab found Calvin had not been driving under the influence, she said. But by then, Calvin’s mental health had deteriorated, and he couldn’t understand that he needed medication, due to the symptom of anosognosia, a condition when someone has a lack of awareness that they’re mentally ill.

“I thought getting him in would mean he would be treated for his illness in a more comprehensive way,” Clark said. “Instead, he came out of a (nearly) two-month incarceration and two weeks in the hospital no more stable or well than he was before.”

Then, the day after Calvin’s case was dropped, Clark was hosting a Bunco party for a dozen friends when Calvin locked her and her husband out of the house. They called 911, believing he was an imminent threat. Her husband, not wanting to wait for police, intervened, and an altercation ensued. By the time police arrived, they misread what was happening, Clark said, and they arrested her husband on suspicion of domestic violence assault. Police refused to recommend a psychiatric hold for her son, she said.

The next morning, Clark got a call that Calvin was picked up by police, threatening to kill himself. He was involuntarily committed for five days before being dropped off at the men’s homeless shelter Share House in downtown Vancouver. He spent one night there, got up the next morning and jumped off the Interstate 5 Bridge.

Since then, Calvin has told his mother he didn’t want to die. “He just wanted help, and he can’t believe that’s what it took,” Clark said.

Her husband’s case was dismissed months later, after her interview with attorneys. She said the responding officers’ lack of training nearly destroyed her family.

“This is why (Involuntary Treatment Act) laws need to change,” Clark said. “Families are supposed to wait until they’re attacked?”

Mental Health Statistics

• In 2016, there were an estimated 10.4 million adults age 18 or older in the United States with serious mental illness, according to statistics from the National Institute on Mental Health. This number represented 4.2 percent of all U.S. adults.

• Only about half of those with serious mental illness ages 18 to 25 received treatment in 2016, according to statistics from the National Institute on Mental Health.

• People with serious mental illnesses have a  10 to 25-year life expectancy reduction, according to stats from the World Health Organization. A vast majority of those deaths are from cardiovascular, respiratory and infectious diseases, diabetes and hypertension, as well as suicide. People with serious mental illnesses are less likely to receive good health and social care, according to WHO.

• Mortality rates among people with schizophrenia is 2 to 2.5 times higher than the general population, according to WHO. People with bipolar mood disorders have high mortality rates ranging from 35 percent higher to twice as high as the general population.

• According to a 2014 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, about 20% of inmates in jails and 15% of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness.

• That would have meant there were about 356,000 inmates with serious mental illness in jails and state prisons. The number is expected to have risen since, according to the Advocacy Center.

• The average bed rate at Western State Hospital is $790 a day, while enhanced service facilities cost $425 per day and adult family homes just $95, according to the Seattle Times.

• 190,078 people in Washington have serious bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia. That number places Washington 13th highest in the U.S., according to 2017 stats from the Treatment Advocacy Center.

• 90,223 Washingtonians have serious untreated bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia, according to 2017 stats from the Treatment Advocacy Center.

• 70 percent  of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness, according to statistics from the National Institute on Mental Health.

How to get Help

• Behavioral health crisis services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling the Southwest Washington Crisis Line at 800-626-8137 or text at 866-835-2755

• NAMI SW WA can be reached at 360-695-2823

• The National Suicide Prevention line can be reached at 1-800-273-8255

Mothers of the Mentally Ill

Clark’s frustration with the system and a need for a supportive community led her to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI Southwest Washington, where she routinely talks with other families in similar circumstances.

“All of our stories are pretty bizarre; but in a way, it normalizes the bizarre,” she said in a January 2017 interview. “I feel a lot of solidarity there. It does help to know I’m not alone, but it’s extra frustrating. We’re all in this crisis, and it clearly is a citywide, countywide, statewide, nationwide problem that doesn’t have enough resources.”

It was at a NAMI fundraiser where Heidi O’Connor, 50, heard Clark share her son’s story and thought, “You and I are living parallel lives,” she said.

O’Connor’s son, Austin Timpe, 19, was in a car crash when he was 17 years old and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Her son, too, has been jailed for various crimes, one of which gained media attention after police say he called a 14-year-old boy a racial slur, punched him several times and threatened to stab him. He later pleaded guilty to harassment and fourth-degree assault, court records show.

O’Connor said her son was unstable and hearing voices at the time of the incident. “Can you imagine? You’re hearing voices in your head, and now you’re in jail,” she said. “Jail is the worst place for them.”

“One of the things about mental illness is we need to start treating it like a medical condition, because it is the brain that’s inflamed,” O’Connor said.

She said our society doesn’t know enough about serious mental illness and said the subject is taboo.

“Parents can’t be responsible for intensive case management and housing and medication decisions. It’s too much, and we don’t have the training. We can’t possibly have that training to fulfill that role,” Clark said.

When Clark’s son was arrested again in May 2018 in King County, she knew he was ill and at great risk. She was concerned he would try to die by suicide in the jail.

Clark was trying to figure out who should be held responsible if her son died in jail and decided it would be Inslee. She called his office and requested a meeting. She was told to fill out a form online. The form asked if she was part of a group, because if she was, she’d likely get a meeting sooner. That’s when the idea of MOMI manifested. Clark started calling friends, including O’Connor, and asked them if they’d join her group. It took off from there.

She created a Facebook page for the group and has been flooded with requests from people to participate, receiving calls from all over the country.

In June, MOMI arranged to meet with Inslee’s policy adviser on mental health to discuss concerns and ideas for improvements in the system. The day before its meeting, Inslee held a press conference to talk about the decertification of Western State Hospital and express his interest in improving mental health care options statewide. When he found out MOMI was coming, he asked to meet with the group. The families shared personal stories and policy recommendations with him.

MOMI proposes: reforming or replacing the Involuntary Treatment Act, which allows for an individual to be committed to a mental health facility against their will for a limited time period; funding Program of Assertive Community Treatment, an integrated community-based treatment, rehabilitation and support services model; funding supportive housing and inpatient beds; and administering the Mental Health Advance Directive, a legal document that outlines a person’s wishes about what types of treatment and services they want during a mental health crisis.

“Mental health is such a broad topic, and we just have silos being worked on. We can’t have one function without the others,” Clark said.

Since that meeting, MOMI has hosted several community forums about mental illness — discussing how the group believes failures by the state government have put people who are severely mentally ill in a position where their most likely outcomes are homelessness, incarceration or death — and a roundtable, where legislators attended.

Peggy McCarthy, executive director for NAMI Southwest Washington, said it’s exciting to watch Clark’s determination and MOMI’s progress. She thinks MOMI has been effective in promoting change.

“The best thing NAMI can do is get community members interested in helping to fix things to make it better for people who have severe mental illnesses. They can tell the stories much better than an organization can. They’re the ones who are going to make the changes,” McCarthy said of MOMI.

‘I see now what’s possible’

Clark said she feels like Inslee and state lawmakers are listening.

In December, she spoke during Inslee’s unveiling of his proposal to reshape the state’s mental health care system at the Navos treatment facility in Burien. Inslee has proposed a $675 million plan. She also spoke on a panel to the Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee, looking at changes to the Involuntary Treatment Act, earlier this month.

Clark told the subcommittee that current ITA law traps people in an “illness state” so the only way out is through violence. Her son didn’t meet the criteria for treatment until he attempted suicide, and when he was incarcerated on a felony.

“He has told me that the ITA did not protect his liberty, but instead, guaranteed he would lose all his civil rights, locked in jail and isolated from his family,” Clark testified. “My son has cycled through a dozen involuntary commitments, each required him to lose almost everything before he qualified for help and then provided the most minimal care — three of them dumped him into homelessness. After each short stay, he’s been arrested or rehospitalized immediately at higher cost and with a worst prognosis.”

She implored the subcommittee to amend the law so that violence isn’t required for treatment and hospital stays are long enough for recovery.

While Clark pushes for change through MOMI, her son, for the last six months, has found some stability.

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Calvin is at Pioneer Human Services, which helps people released from prison or jail, and those in recovery, by providing treatment, housing, job skills training and employment.

“I see now what’s possible,” Clark said, adding that she believes her son is being treated with dignity and respect. “I think as he recovers from these really, really rough experiences he’s had, they will direct him toward his own dharma.”

Columbian staff writer