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A preventable suicide

At age 27, my son's life and the lives of his family changed forever. He was literally transformed into a different person. His behavior became weird, psychotic and delusional. He was obsessed with neurotic religious beliefs; he thought that God had anointed him a prophet and commissioned him to write another book for the Bible.

He believed he was in the witness protection program and federal agents were trying to assassinate him because he was in possession of top secret information that would take down important people in the government if he went public. He developed an unhealthy fixation on the president and made many attempts to get into the White House. He thought he had a White House security clearance and that the FBI had issued him a special gun permit. There were days he actually believed he was the president, living in the White House. He was in complete denial that anything was wrong with him. It took an aggressive encounter with a police officer to get him committed to a hospital. His diagnosis brought two new words into our lives: bipolar disorder.

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My son was so ill my family feared he would never recover. But recover he did after 32 days of treatment with forced medications. He suffered four additional, prolonged bipolar manic episodes — each episode preceded by his decision to stop taking his medication, each episode more severe than the previous and of a longer duration.

The longer duration was because of judges at commitment hearings who ruled time and time again that my son was not a danger to himself or others — often against the recommendation of the treating psychiatrist. These judges were complying with state laws that set strict controls regarding hospitalization with forced treatment, restricting it to circumstances when a person is suicidal or homicidal. These laws force families to watch their loved ones deteriorate mentally until they actually reach the crisis stage and meet the commitment criteria of being a danger to themselves or others. By then, it is sometimes too late.

Each time my son was allowed to go untreated for long periods of time, he sustained further brain damage. His downward course was aided by a completely ineffective legal system that continually protected his civil right to refuse treatment until he became suicidal or homicidal. This illness left him trapped in a body ravaged by irreversible damage from untreated bipolar disorder. Sadly, he was allowed to reach the crisis stage one time too many. His third attempt at suicide was successful.

Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, this month reintroduced their groundbreaking Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, H.R. 2646. This revamped bill builds upon the previous bipartisan version. H.R. 2646 breaks down federal barriers to care, clarifies privacy standards for families and caregivers, reforms outdated programs, expands benefits parity accountability and invests in services for the most difficult to treat cases while driving evidence-based care.

Mental illness is not something people choose. It does not discriminate based on age, class or ethnicity. It affects all segments of society. Nearly 10 million Americans have serious mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression), but millions are going without treatment as families struggle to find care for loved ones.

Families for decades have had to work within the constraints of our broken, dysfunctional mental health system that fails the sickest — those people who need treatment the most but are too sick to recognize their illness and therefore refuse treatment. This bill addresses the obstacles families face when trying to save loved ones from untreated serious mental illness. Mental illness is treatable.

Had H.R. 2646 been law during my son's 13-year struggle with severe bipolar disorder, his family would have been able to help him get treatment. He might very well be alive today.

Dottie Pacharis is a West River resident and author of "Mind on the Run: a Bipolar Chronicle" (Idyll Arbor, 2011). Her email is dottie42@gmail.com.

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