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Painful tales of mental illness spur lawmakers to action
Harrowing stories of denied or delayed mental-health care, such as Jordan Anderson’s, are pushing legislators to reform the way we treat the mentally ill.
Times editorial columnist
On a Sunday morning in June 2011, Jordan Anderson’s mother knocked on his bedroom door to gather him for church.
Lorena Taylor-McPhail found her son dressed for worship, but also spread-eagle on his bed, seized by psychosis.
“Mom, it has started again — the war between good and evil,” he told her. “I’m burning up.”
Among the cruelties of severe mental illness is the fact that it often descends in the bloom of young adulthood. In Jordan’s case, he was 21, thinking about starting an automotive-parts business, a skilled BMX racer, handsome enough to model.
And then he was suddenly sick.
There is finally urgency in Olympia to reform mental-health care. One lawmaker after another has heard harrowing first-person accounts of scant treatment, denied at critical moments. Those who haven’t can hear it from Taylor-McPhail, who is telling her son’s story at legislative hearings Thursday.
Jordan’s story underlines the costs of our last-in-the-nation ranking for community psychiatric beds. In the last decade alone, the tally of beds certified for involuntarily committed patients dropped by a third.
Jordan’s first psychotic break came Jan. 14, 2011. His hallucinations were religious-themed — he was a prophet sent to save mankind from earthquakes and poisoned air. Suicidal, he jumped out of a moving car and was involuntarily committed.
But he stayed at a West Seattle psychiatric hospital just hours. He smashed a third-story window with a table and leaped out, according to Taylor-McPhail and other family members. Taylor-McPhail said Jordan was apparently left unsupervised when staff took a break.
Jordan crushed his heel during the escape and spent about a month at Harborview Medical Center, healing his body and mind. He left under a court-ordered treatment plan, but got permission to visit his dad in Arizona. “He did great. Fantastic, really,” said Ted Anderson, who lives near Peoria.
As Jordan’s 90-day treatment plan was expiring, Taylor-McPhail said she called his case manager because Jordan stopped taking the meds, but she was ignored. The delusions crept back.
She resisted joining a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group, and didn’t tell Jordan’s friends. “It was the stigma,” she said. “I was feeling the shame: What had I done as a mother?”
By the time Taylor-McPhail found Jordan sprawled in bed that Sunday morning, she was exhausted, isolated and desperate. She called 911 hoping he could go back to Harborview, but was told seven other patients were already stacked up in its ER.
Instead, he went to a Federal Way hospital. Records aren’t available, but Taylor-McPhail and her ex-husband, Anderson, have the same recollection: A King County psychiatric evaluator determined that Jordan wasn’t an immediate risk to himself or others, and suggested he spend a night in a homeless shelter. Because of mental-health confidentiality laws, the evaluator couldn’t take into account Taylor-McPhail’s concerns.
What frustrates me about this story is that the Legislature in 2010 passed a law to deal exactly with this scenario.
House Bill 3076 loosened criteria for the Involuntary Treatment Act, allowing evaluators to consider a patient’s history, including statements of family members, before deciding whether to civilly commit a patient.
But the start date was delayed twice — to 2012, then to 2015 — because it would require hundreds more hospital beds, at a cost of about $11 million a year.
The Legislature is now considering speeding up implementation with Senate Bill 5480. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget set aside $7.5 million for it, and Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, gave it a hearing last week in the Senate Human Services and Corrections committee.
When Jordan wasn’t involuntarily committed, he left the Federal Way hospital with just a bus pass.
He found his way up to Seattle the next day, June 13, 2011. In the early afternoon, almost five months to the day after he was first committed, Jordan jumped off the 11th floor of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. He died instantly.
Taylor-McPhail didn’t cry in our two-hour interview, but I suspect she did the moment I left. She said she felt powerless: She couldn’t even tell the evaluator what she knew. “The hardest part is, as a mother, you have all the responsibility and none of the power.”
Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email firstname.lastname@example.org