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Behind the story of a mentally ill woman in jail

[ED’s NOTE: Previously published on September 14, 2011] When I first met Carla Clark, it was obvious that the fate of her 22-year-old daughter Melissa weighed heavily on her mind. I could see the anxiety in her eyes, hear the worry in her voice.

Her only daughter has been locked up in Cook County Jail for the last year, much of that time in the jail’s Cermak Hospital.

Now, after a brief release, her daughter is back there again, as we reported Friday.

Melissa was charged with felony robbery – her latest and most serious arrest – after she fought a security guard who caught her stealing food from a Whole Foods Store. While it is agonizing to know that her daughter is behind bars, Carla Clark is relieved to at least know where Melissa is.

Like many severely mentally ill people, Melissa has resisted taking her prescription medicine in favor of street drugs. She has been homeless. She has overdosed on heroin. She has been assaulted by drug dealers.

Diagnosed with bipolar disease and schizophrenia, the former cheerleader has spent much of her teen years and early 20s cycling in and out of jails, rehab facilities and hospitals.

Many families would not choose to talk about their family’s despair in a newspaper. It’s a really personal story. But by the time I met Carla Clark, she was ready to go public.

People need to know the raw truth, she told me.

The raw truth is that it’s heartbreaking when a loved one is severely mentally ill and their behavior lands them in jail or prison. That person needs help, but often the kind of help that they need is not available because there is a dearth of community-based psychiatric services. It is a shortage that is being exacerbated by the current economic crisis.

Carla Clark would like a criminal court judge to transfer her daughter to a state psychiatric facility where she could get forced medication, which she sees as her daughter’s only hope.

“She deserves to have the opportunity to have some clarity to make a decision about her life,” she said. “Right now she has no wherewithal to make decisions.”

During a recent visit with Melissa in jail, I saw a troubled young woman who was trying hard to pull herself together but couldn’t. She was agitated and trembling, her eyes saucer-like, pleading to go home.

“I’ve been through a lot,” she told me blankly.

Melissa’s family has tried everything to help her. They are a middle-class family, and the medical, psychiatric and legal bills have been significant. Above all, they are frustrated that it is taking so long for Melissa’s case to go through the courts. After a year, no decision has been made about whether she is fit to stand trial, and her family fears that her mental health is suffering.

"The amount of time it is taking is unforgivable,” her brother Brandon Clark told me recently. “We do not let someone with a broken leg sit in the ER for over a year."

Carla Clark told me it would be worth giving up some privacy if by telling their family’s story the general public would have a deeper understanding of the problems faced by people who are mentally ill.

“By putting a focus on mental illness it takes it out of the shadows and truly helps the mentally ill, rather than punishing them for struggling to cope with a devastating disorder the best that they can,” she said. “It also helps all of us who will inevitably be touched by the mentally ill, sooner or later.”

-- Deborah Shelton

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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