Two Moms Team Up, Using Tragedy to Spark Change in Mental Health System

February 25, 2014

When 20-year-old Josh Harkey was discharged from the Navy in 2002, his mom said he came home a different person.

"He wasn't talking as much, he wasn't socializing with friends, he wasn't caring for himself," Harkey said. Her son was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia. But because he was over 18 years of age, Harkey couldn't force her son to seek treatment.

"It's like running into a brick wall sometimes, trying to get treatment in Virginia." As her son's mental illness worsened, Harkey's hands were tied. After four years of battling his schizophrenia, Josh Harkey committed suicide in January of 2006, when he was 24 years old.

"After I lost him, I knew things had to change," Harkey said. "We couldn't continue to lose men and women to an illness that's treatable."

Harkey began working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, lobbying lawmakers in Richmond to improve the way the state cares for its mentally ill and removing roadblocks for families seeing treatment for loved ones. Under current law, hospitals in Virginia can hold patients suffering a mental crisis for a maximum of six hours under an emergency custody order. There are two separate bills under consideration in the 2014 General Assembly session that would change the maximum time of an emergency custody order to eight or 24 hours. One of those bills was introduced by State Senator Creigh Deeds, who lost his son to suicide in November, after an emergency custody order expired.

"That's the reality I live every day in the emergency department," said Dr. Scott Syverud, a physician with the University of Virginia Medical Center. " We have less time in this state to complete an evaluation than almost any other state in the nation."

Syverud also serves on the state's mental health task force and says while extending emergency custody orders is a good place to start, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

"Intervention earlier, when family members first recognize it is a lot more effective both short term and long term. Unfortunately the only time you can force someone right now to get help is when they reach that very end state. "

It's a battle Harkey knows all too well and one Maria Carlton is beginning to understand. Carlton's 25-year-old son, Aaron, suffered a psychotic break at work two years ago.

"He told his coworkers he was hearing voices and seeing things...He had some delusions and he left work and just started walking down the street aimlessly." That was the first time Carlton called 911 to help her son, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but not the last. Carlton said her son has been in and out of emergency rooms ever since his diagnosis and he refuses to take his medicine.

"I sneak his medication in his meals because without it I know he would be totally derailed."

Carlton worries her son will share the same tragic fate as Harkey's son, Josh. Both women know the anguish of having to sit back and watch a loved one deteriorate mentally and physically. They have teamed up to put the pressure on lawmakers to change the way care is provided to the mentally ill, with a bigger focus on preventative care and better follow up for people with severe mental illness.

"A person with a mental illness needs to have a treatment plan," said Harkey, "and you can't put that into place with a one night stay in the hospital."

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