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News / Health / Clark County Health

Finding Austin Timpe: Inadequate treatment, incarceration leave ill young man reeling

By Wyatt Stayner, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 27, 2019, 6:05am
3 Photos
Austin Timpe’s life changed after a car crash in 2016, in which he suffered brain damage that led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Austin Timpe’s life changed after a car crash in 2016, in which he suffered brain damage that led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Photo courtesy of Heidi O’Connor Photo Gallery

Friends made lunches and dinners for Vancouver’s Heidi and Rodger O’Connor. It was the winter of 2017, and the couple’s son, 18-year-old Austin Timpe, was missing.

They started around 7 a.m. every day, making coffee and sorting through messages and tips they received. Rodger O’Connor, Timpe’s stepfather, made spreadsheets to organize everything. Timpe’s mother contacted news outlets and the FBI during the nearly weeklong search for her son.

Rodger O’Connor, 53, even attempted to drive to the Mount Vernon area, where Timpe had gone missing. He stopped short in Olympia, realizing, as Heidi O’Connor said, that “this is like looking for a needle in a haystack.” During that time, the couple pulled 14-hour days assisting in the search for their son.

“As the days keep going, and you have no information, you start to lose hope,” said Heidi O’Connor, 50.

Timpe wasn’t a runaway, and he wasn’t kidnapped. Just before he went missing, he had been placed under the care of the state. He was in a car crash in spring 2016, and the brain trauma he suffered led to him being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Timpe is now 19, and since his diagnosis, he and his mother have traversed a legal and medical system they feel has failed in its care for Timpe and the seriously mentally ill in Washington. Timpe has been hospitalized seven times and sent to jail three times.

Timpe went missing after he was abruptly released, against Heidi O’Connor’s wishes, from Skagit Valley Hospital Mental Health Center to the streets without any way back to Clark County, she said. He had been involuntarily committed Dec. 22, 2017, because his mental health was deteriorating.

The day after being admitted to the facility, a doctor was already pushing for Timpe’s release, said O’Connor, who has power of attorney over her son. She said the facility didn’t take Timpe’s mental illness seriously, even though he said his parents were running a satanic cult, and had put a chip in his brain so the CIA could track him.

He was released Jan. 2, 2018, with a dying cellphone, no charger, no money and no competence to make the nearly six-hour trip back home alone, O’Connor said.

Timpe wandered for six days, eating out of trash cans and sleeping on the street and in shelters. He eventually returned to Clark County after someone with Seattle Gospel Mission bought him a train ticket home, his mother said. Rodger O’Connor picked up Timpe at Share House in Vancouver, and Timpe asked, “Hey Dad, what are you doing here?”

He was bewildered, Heidi O’Connor said of her son. He thought his parents had abandoned him. But it’s the state’s troubling mental health care system that’s left her and her son feeling abandoned, she said.

As O’Connor has tried to get Timpe care, he’s experienced a system of incarceration and hospitalization that seems to routinely spit him out before he can get better.

While Skagit represents a low for Timpe, O’Connor said her son has also been prescribed medication he’s allergic to, shipped to other counties because Clark County didn’t have a bed for him and released from care without receiving any medication. He spent the better part of a year of his life either hospitalized or incarcerated.

“The hospitals really don’t help that much, except to maybe try to stabilize the person. After the first 10 or 11 days, all they are doing is just watching the person, and then they send them home. It’s not like taking a pain pill, where it just works immediately. It takes weeks, months to build up, get better and adjust,” O’Connor said.

“It’s given me low self-esteem,” Timpe added. “I have no new friends. Being sent to jail is really depressing.”

O’Connor has filed a complaint against the doctor who was caring for her son at the Skagit facility, and it was referred to the Department of Health for investigation. The family is also working with an attorney.

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

Timpe now participates in the local Program of Assertive Community Treatment, which helps him recover and plan for the future. But O’Connor said her son needs a more comprehensive program, such as a live-in situation where Timpe can be housed, which isn’t currently available in Clark County.

“He wants friends. He wants a job. It needs to be full scale,” O’Connor said. “Because right now, I’m it for his support 24/7. That takes a lot out of the parent or the caregiver, but also that doesn’t build them back up to where they can be successful.”

Columbian staff writer