On a recent morning, I was driving to an early meeting when I hit quite a bit of traffic. Living where I do, we can be anywhere from the suburbs to the city within 20 minutes; during normal “rush hour” it might take 27 minutes. But on this morning, traffic was stopped. I flipped on the radio just in time to hear of an accident on one of the adjoining highways and knew I was in for a bit of a challenge getting to my meeting on time. As I sat in stop and go traffic, the news reported that the situation was not actually an accident but instead a person had jumped out of a car, while it was moving, and had run off. The police were searching for the individual but the news reported that there was no need to worry. My first reactions were disbelief and frustration. “Great” I thought, “some guy chooses this morning to jump out of a car”. I finally made my way to my meeting, but I kept thinking about the jumper, sensing that there was much more to the story.
As the morning went on, more and more information became known about this situation. The man who jumped from the car had just been discharged from a local behavioral health facility. The police were looking for him, not because he was a danger to others, but instead because he was a danger to himself; apparently threatening to harm himself as he leapt from his girlfriend’s car onto the highway.
My heart caught into my throat when I heard this part of the story. I hadn’t expected the memories to come flooding back. Yet, I was immediately transported back to a time, roughly two years ago, when I was driving my son from an appointment back to the residential facility where he was living. It was a very scary experience, he was screaming in my face, threatening to jump out of the car and threatening to harm himself if I didn’t let him do what he wanted. I remember thinking that whatever I did, I could not stop the car. I prayed for green lights. I relocked the car doors every time he unlocked them. I kept thinking that as long as the car was moving, I’d have a shot at keeping him inside and safe until we got back to the facility.
Somehow I kept my cool, I talked as calmly as I could to my son, trying to get small pieces of rational information through to him, anything, hoping to keep him from jumping out of the car. Somehow, we made it back to the facility safely.
I hadn’t thought about that incident for a long time, until this recent morning when the jumper brought the memory of that day crashing back. I was very interested in the progress of the search for this man and I followed the news story on social media sites as it unfolded. One of the benefits of social media is having access to the most up-to-date information in near real-time. As a precaution an elementary school in the area was put in lock out. They brought in K9 units to search the wooded areas. Police helicopters were searching from the air. The downside of social media is that it gives people a platform to share their opinions, at times it would seem without the same filters that are generally acceptable to use in real face-to-face conversations. As soon as it was published that the man had just been discharged from a mental health facility, the comment counts jumped ten-fold. Many of the comments were uninformed, fear based and snarky. It was a stark reminder of the amount of work still necessary to bring awareness to how big the stigma around mental illness really is.
On one side, I can see why people respond so harshly to stories of mental illness. The media has done a “fantastic” [insert sarcastic font] job tying violence to mentally ill persons. On the flip side, I wonder what it will take for society to begin to view mental illness as a true disease as opposed to a weakness or a deficiency that people can just “get over”. There is fear around what we do not understand and unlike many other diseases; mental illness is not one that is well understood. In the past 10 years, the statistics haven’t changed for the better; one-in-four adults suffer from some type of mental health challenge. This is one-in-four adults that seek out support; my guess is that the number is likely greater but because of the associated stigma, many do not seek assistance. It is also important to note that people with mental illness diagnoses are generally not perpetrators of violence, in fact they are more likely to be the victims of violence instead.
Luckily, with the police assistance, the man who jumped from his car was found. He was not seriously injured. While I do not know for certain, I hope that he received the additional support that he needed to stabilize his situation and remain safe. While I am left wondering if our broken behavioral health managed care programs were responsible for discharging this person before he was ready, as I witnessed in my son’s situation, I am grateful that another potential tragedy appears to be have been averted.
Even though this situation had nothing to do with me directly, it helped me to realize a part of my story that is still in need of healing. I have learned that it is so important to not push these memories back down but instead to sit with them, explore them and let them move through so that they no longer hinder my ability to move forward. It has also reinforced for me how critical it is to continue to share my story and experiences so that others may have an opportunity to recognize elements of their own story, as I did here, that they may not even realize still need to be healed.
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