Friday, October 21, 2005

"The young mother charged with dropping her three sons into San Francisco Bay had a large extended family that tried to help her cope with the crippling effects of schizophrenia and a breakup with her children's father, relatives said.

"Yet the support, as well as occasional input from mental health professionals, wasn't enough to keep Lashuan Harris from moving into a homeless shelter, going off her medication and getting overwhelmed by her illness."

(article continues at the San Diego Union-Tribune)

The whole story is tragic, but that last line really got to me. In this last year that I've worked for a provider of emergency housing, I've personally seen this type of thing happen many times over, if with less dramatic endings.

Typically the county hospital will release a mentally ill patient with a few days worth of medication and a prescription that they have no money to fill. They are then literally dropped at the door of the shelter, where the meds are likely stolen the first night for their street value. It's not long before they're out on the street, attracting the attention of police, and beginning the cycle again.

I could tell the stories of at least a couple of our clients who've died over the past year, in part due to problems in the mental health system...

... A woman who left our shelter with her 30-day supply of medication and a two-liter bottle of vodka and consumed them all in one night at a nearby fleabag hotel. At least she had the courtesy to die off-site.

... A man released to us from the hospital with a feeding tube, a colostomy bag, and covered in his own shit. We explained that we were not able to provide the liquid diet he needed to survive, but the hospital would not take him back. He fought with staff and other clients and insisted on shitting in public and was kicked out of the shelter. (We tried to have the police pick him in protective custody, but they wouldn't help either). Within a week he was found dead behind our dumpster where he'd find the solid food scraps that he ate against the doctor's orders.

These are the stories that I'm not supposed to tell, lest I damage the reputation of my employer. There are good stories too, don't get me wrong. We do help a lot of people. But the system as a whole fails for many. Which brings us back to the woman in Oakland who just threw her three children into the San Francisco Bay...

... "She told my mama she was going to feed them to the sharks," said Britney Fitzpatrick, Harris' 16-year-old half-sister. "No one thought it was that serious."

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