Even when my mom was homeless for close to two years, living in a car, I always made time to see and visit with her on Mother’s Day. She always wanted to go to Marie Callenders for the occasion. This past weekend, like I’ve done the two previously, I went to the cemetery to give my mom flowers. I made it a point to do some filming, too. What I’m sharing with you, below, is the closing scene to the introduction to the short film. Of course, there will be narrating and music added.
There are two days left for the fundraiser. Though I’ve made my goal, I am still fundraising to cover the costs of some unanticipated things like buying historical film footage and hiring someone to do some graphics animation. I’ll be lucky to break even, when all is said and done. So, please share the campaign link to others who you think might be willing to support my project.
I haven’t been posting because I’m working on a video project, while on my sabbatical from teaching. For my followers and visitors, yes, this project is a new phase in my advocacy work for my family. It’s a short documentary on my family’s experience with the mental healthcare system.
As those things go, costs accrue, related to production and planning. They’re relatively low, since I’m doing this project as an “amateur,” someone who has no formal training and experience with filmmaking. It’s something I feel compelled to do, though, and feel pretty good about the prospects of completing something valuable and important. If you could take the time to considering donating to my fundraising campaign for the film and sharing it with people you know, I’d greatly appreciate it. Here’s the link to the Kickstarter campaign (click on “campaign”).
Below is a snippet from the campaign website, followed by a short video segment of an interview I’ve already done with a family friend. Thank you for your consideration and help!
“This short documentary is my latest attempt at advocating and seeking justice for my mom and family. I have no formal filmmaking training or experience, but am determined enough to make something meaningful and impactful. I’ll be incorporating a significant amount of my own knowledge, experience and research in the film…
I’ve, also, been lucky enough, through making connections, to make plans to interview people who have worked on the “inside” of the mental healthcare system. One person used to work on a community mental health crisis team and another was a doctor in a psychiatric emergency room. I’ll be using my training as a Political Scientist to include a Politics of Mental Healthcare section in the film, as well.”
As a former caretaker, The Joker movie hit me in a raw way. I think the movie accurately portrays how society mistreats the poor and people with serious mental illness (SMI). I saw this, firsthand, in trying to help and take care of my mom, who struggled with schizoaffective disorder.
My mom wasn’t able to take care of herself adequately. She, in fact, had been suffering mightily and deteriorating for years. I couldn’t take it anymore. She deserved to live with a semblance of dignity.
When I started taking care of her full-time, we didn’t have a lot of family around and I didn’t have a lot of money saved up from my teaching job. So, my mom and I were pretty isolated socially and very reliant on the government for her healthcare and welfare needs.
I was able to stabilize her medically (physically) enough and keep her safe for two years, but society made it exceedingly difficult, in every respect, for me to do so. As it was, it never provided us with sufficient help and respect, since the onset of her SMI. My mom needlessly suffered for more than a decade. She would never be treated for her SMI and stabilized. She was discarded. We were discarded.
“They don’t care about people like you, Arthur.”
Those were the words spoken to Arthur Fleck by his government social worker (SW). She was referring to the policy makers (officials) who decided to close her office and, thus, cut Arthur off from his psychiatric meds. But as was clear in their interactions, even the SW didn’t seem to care all that much about Arthur’s struggle. As Arthur stated moments before she told him the news, “You never really listen to me.” He’s of course saying she doesn’t really care about him.
This was all too common an experience in trying to access MH services for my mom. For example, there was the time when an intake worker/clinician at a county Behavioral Health Department, in flagrant violation of county policy and state law, outright denied my mom MH services, because my mom, like many people with SMI, denied having a SMI!
The worker was cold and impersonal from the minute we met. I remember saying, angrily, on my way out of the interview/assessment, “I’m waiting outside, mama. All she’s doing at this point is filling out information so they can get their money for seeing you from Medi-Cal.”
There was the time when a hospital nurse and supervisor unsafely discharged my mom against my wishes. My mom was clearly in a psychotic state and unable to make a competent decision about her own care. My mom didn’t even believe she was in a hospital.
Despite this and her physical condition being fragile (She would be treated for sepsis and was just two days removed from a ventilator.), hospital staff would wheel her to a cab. They couldn’t even be bothered to do a psychiatric evaluation to see if she fit involuntary hold criteria.
This incident was an extreme example, but our experiences with various hospitals taught me they don’t give a shit about people with SMI. Whenever my mom started to become non-compliant, due to her psychosis, staff would become less attentive and they’d begin preparing her for discharge, even if she wasn’t medically stable.
And this is what they were willing to do regularly in front of me. I can only imagine what they did all those times I wasn’t with her before she lived with me!
“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?”
That’s what Arthur asked his social worker during one of their sessions. She responded by saying, “It’s tough times. People are struggling with no work.”
Her comment is a reference to the larger political and economic situation the movie is based in. It’s a pretty subtle backdrop, but the movie itself starts with a radio report of a pitched labor battle, a garbage strike, to help make that very point.
It lasts weeks and leads to increasing piles of garbage on city and neighborhood streets. Tensions build and, eventually, protests breakout at what’s clearly deep frustration with economic inequality and uncertainty, and government mistreatment and negligence.
Arthur’s access to his meds and social worker getting cutoff epitomizes how poor people with disabilities are some of the biggest victims of these conditions. Social scientists actually have a name for such government practices. They’re called “austerity politics.”
In a basic sense, we have been living under an era of “austerity politics” for decades. Since the 70s, governments, at every level, have been cutting costs and services (i.e. downsizing), in the name of “fiscal responsibility” and in order to foster a better “business environment.” It’s a process, a project really, that started as a result of a sluggish economy, increased foreign competition and lower corporate profits. The movie is set in the early 80s, the decade when the process accelerates. (My mom would actually lose her job with the State of California in the late 90s, due to layoffs.)
Mental health services have not gone untouched. People like to blame the Republicans and Ronald Reagan for the closing of state psychiatric hospitals. But today, even in “Liberal” San Francisco, we have a local government severely neglecting the needs of its own SMI population. So much so, we have local MH workers themselves speaking out against the inadequate conditions and publicly protesting. In fact, former Chief Psychiatrist of SF General Hospital, Robert Okin, describes the situation as a “war on the mentally ill.”
Arthur’s social worker’s full comment actually was “They don’t care about people like you, Arthur. They don’t care about people like me either.” I’ve had my issues with regular staff and frontline workers. In fact, a friend my mom and I made at her dialysis center even told me, in a private conversation, that her coworkers don’t care about the patients. They only care about the money.
This regime we are living under of austerity leaves me with no doubt, however, that high level administrators and public officials are the biggest culprits of all. They make it too difficult, if not impossible, for even the best and most empathetic workers to do their jobs.
“Society decides what’s fun-ny.”
Arthur says this after embracing his homicidal, violent urges and becoming The Joker. It’s the beginning of a strident public criticism he makes, while appearing on a late-night talk show, to explain his rage and motives. His criticism really is the first time he says something so politically cohesive in the movie.
In a basic sense, he says society made the rules and the rules were made to keep him marginalized and an outcast. He worked hard and honestly, but he lost his job cause of a dishonest coworker and cold-hearted boss. He wanted to get better, but he was cut off from his meds. He cared for his ill mother the best he could, but in the end, she was his biggest betrayer and abuser.
My life experience hasn’t been so bleak. In fact, there were many people, workers, clinicians and strangers that were nice to me and my mom, and did try to help in some way. And my mama knew I loved her and I know she loved me, even though her SMI strained our relationship.
But I damn well know there are too many people who have it worse, like Arthur. And some of them, unfortunately, do lash out with violence. As it is, I’ll never forget what was done to me and my family. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive. Society will try to focus on individual motives or psychological reasons for behavior it doesn’t like, but the fact of the matter is society, is too often, the monster.
My mom’s birthday just passed. She would have been a young 68 years old. Like last year, I went to the cemetery to take her flowers. Visiting her grave on special occasions is a kind of ritual for me now, and I don’t expect that to really ever change. It’s part of my healing, and my healing is going to be a long road, I’ve realized.
Sure, the grief is lessening, but other issues remain. Or I should say, have revealed themselves, like my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now, I knew I had anxiety. I’ve wrestled with that for some time. In fact, I mentioned that to my mom her last week with us, while she was in hospice, as a way to try and make some atonement for losing my temper with her at times. I apologized to her and said my anxiety can make me irritable.
Just weeks after my mom passed, though, I began to notice some persistent changes and problems with my mind and body. Things I hadn’t really noticed before. As I researched and learned through counseling, they were definite signs of PTSD. Before I explain my experience, here’s what the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) says about it:
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event… Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD.”
It’s well-known that PTSD is something experienced by many combat vets. Experiencing the death of a loved one, however, is also traumatic and can lead to PTSD in survivors, especially when the suffering is prolonged.
Mental health advocates have a name for this. It’s called “traumatic loss.” Two researchers define it the following way:
“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if there is damage to the loved one’s body; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the death as preventable; if the survivor believes that the loved one suffered; or if the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust.”
My experience with my mom meets most of these “check boxes.” Over the course of many years, I lost my mom twice, once to her mental illness, the second time physically. In her last two years, the time she lived with me, her kidney disease would gradually take over. I witnessed her lose her physical strength and increasingly pre-age. And the violence? I saw, firsthand, how my mom was the victim of institutional discrimination, abuse and neglect. My heart broke over and over again, in many ways, in this whole ten year plus ordeal.
The sadness and guilt were as intense as I figured they would be, after my mom passed. But as I got better at navigating the murky waters of grief, I started to notice those other changes and problems.
For one, I was restless and uneasy. I would pace between rooms in the house at times. I didn’t recall ever doing that before, aside from the week my mom was in hospice. I liked to relax whenever possible. What was this about, I wondered?! I began noticing, too, that something was going on with my mind. Thoughts were racing and intrusive, and I would be a bit forgetful. I wasn’t able to “zone out” by just watching TV anymore. I had to, also, navigate and skim things on my computer, when watching a TV show. Memories and moments of despair played like songs on repeat in my mind, like the time my mom told me, about a month before she passed, that she didn’t have the strength in her hands to cut zucchinis for Albondingas soup. That was the last time she helped me in the kitchen.
I started to realize that it was like I was stuck. Stuck in my role as caretaker for my mom. Stuck trying to fight my hardest to keep her alive. Stuck dealing with, and often pushing back against, her doctors and hospital administrators, monitoring and assessing her condition every day, counseling her to take all her medicines, and then keeping her as comfortable as possible in hospice.
Yea, I was stuck. My body and mind didn’t know how to turn itself off or even how to lower the volume. Part of them, I’m sure, didn’t want to. I just wanted my mom back. How dare the system take her away from me, from us, so unjustly and prematurely! To accept my mom passing was to accept that we ultimately lost the “battle,” so to speak.
The restlessness, intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance I just described are classic symptoms of PTSD. I, thankfully, don’t have nightmares. But my sleep isn’t great. More than a year after mom passed, I still wake up a few times during the night, as if she’s still here. She’d wake me up, for different reasons, or I’d wake up to go check on her. And rare is the morning that I am able to sleep in past 7:00. I used to get up at that time, like clockwork, to give my mom her morning medicine. I can still be tired, but my racing thoughts won’t let me go back to sleep easily.
And irritability? Check. Anger? Check. While I experience these emotions at times, for what appears to be no logical reason at all, unrelenting intrusive thoughts summon them easily enough. As for flashbacks? Sure. When I see a homeless person or when I’m at a doctor’s office for a medical checkup, my blood pressure and anxiety easily rise. I’m back there, again, in some fashion.
All this said, I am in counseling and doing my best to take care of myself. I was 8 months into my grief counseling when I started to see another counselor for more formal treatment. He would diagnose me with PTSD. I’m also experiencing low-level depression, which makes the self-care part of my healing hard sometimes (I have little motivation to cook), but my counselors say I’m doing very well, all things considered. Still, I know I need to find a meaningful purpose. I need to find peace. I need connection with others. I need understanding. It’s a long road and will probably always be a winding one. But I’ll persist and continue to heal because I know my mom would want me to.
February arrived with a wallop. I was instantaneously taken back to this time last year, the month my mama passed. The memories and flashbacks began occurring with a feeling of slight nausea. That hasn’t happened before, at least not since mama entered hospice the second week of February.
As February approached, I’ve wanted to write a post on my yearlong journey with grief. All this has changed my mind. My emotions are raw enough right now. I need to be careful. I’ll be visiting enough memories and experiences naturally. I don’t need to immerse myself any further.
Instead, I thought I’d post a bit of our hospice experience. I believe I still haven’t processed the time and events fully, so maybe this would help. Today, the 16th, was the day she entered hospice. It was initiated in the hospital. She had been admitted the day before, due to breathing complications. Mama had stopped dialysis and started experiencing more fluid retention, exacerbating her congestive heart failure.
As was usually the case, getting mom into hospice was fraught with immense stress and hospital/medical bullshit. Here’s a short recollection of how the decision was made…. by me:
A year ago today, the hospital gave me the authority to make decisions for mom. I had to put her into hospice. She had stopped dialysis and was increasingly medically non-compliant. It was a decision you never want to make. I didn’t hesitate when they asked what I wanted, though. Mama’s suffering was too great.
It was a bit fortuitous the way it played out. Top to bottom, authorities and health care workers gave her too much agency. “She has the right to decide/refuse treatment,” they’d say. On this day, her doctor and the hospital social worker were in the room with me together. That never happens.
The doctor walked in while I was talking to the social worker. At that point, the social worker was being super unprofessional, casually talking to me about how downhill San Francisco had gone. How dirty it is and how it “smells like pee.” I’m pretty sure I made her feel uncomfortable. The moment she walked into the room, minutes before, I told her what I was expecting from them.
Hospitals have traumatized me. I was hyper vigilant and told her my mom is not being released, until a plan is in place for her to be adequately taken care of, whether at our home or a nursing facility. The doctor walked in and, after a short conversation with me, straight up asked the social worker, “Does Josie have mental capacity to make decisions?” The social worker, without assessing my mom directly, said, to my relief and surprise, “No. She has a serious mental illness.”
The social worker only knew she had a SMI because I told her she did during our short conversation. She didn’t assess my mama directly like I believe she is required to do. Mama was, luckily, sleeping the whole conversation, just a few feet away. (Hospitals are dumb. Their staff will have conversations about their patients’ mental states right in front of them.)
Interestingly, many times in the past, even when authorities knew mom had a SMI, they still always hid behind their civil rights language and laws: “She has the Right to refuse,” they’d say. This even when she was clearly in a psychotic state.
When I look back, maybe it was God or the universe helping me and my family. Mama had been saying Moses was coming for her, after all…. (To be continued)
It has been a little more than three months since my mom passed away. Sadly, her scent is virtually gone from her room, but I am doing the best I can to honor and cherish her memory. Indeed, this is a central part of my healing process.
I try to visit her grave weekly in Madera. I’ll usually stop there for around thirty minutes, while on my way to visit my dad in Fresno. On special occasions, like Mother’s Day, I’ve stayed for more than an hour.
Last Friday, June 1st, was her birthday. Mama would’ve been 67 years old. For the occasion, I dressed up and took her a dozen red roses. She loved roses. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to enjoy them for around the last ten years of her life. She, in fact, didn’t want any roses or plants near her because she thought that toxins could enter her body through them.
That’s what my mom’s untreated serious mental illness made life like for her. She literally couldn’t stop to smell the roses. Every day for her was a struggle. Seeing her suffer and deteriorate was a living nightmare for me.
One of the first things I did after my mom passed was throw out all her medicines. At any given time, my mom was taking around ten different ones for her various serious conditions. She was prescribed dozens of different ones in recent years. This includes “anti-psychotic” drugs like Zyprexa and Risperdal, but she never stayed on those long enough for them to have any effect on her.
The Risperdal was, ironically, prescribed to her during one of her last hospitalizations in January. They had never bothered to try and treat her SMI before when she was hospitalized. Predictably, she refused to take it after the first dosage because it made her feel drowsy.
I actually told the hospital staff to not give or prescribe it to her. What was the point? Why prescribe her psychiatric medicine without her being under the active care of a psychiatrist? The hospital didn’t even bother giving us information as to how to find one. They prescribed it anyways. It was waiting for me the next time I went to the pharmacy. Money, money, money! The game is rigged in the favor of the pharmaceutical companies.
Anything left from her week in hospice I threw out immediately too. My house and her room are going to be a sanctuary of peace and good health only. I returned pictures she had placed in plastic bags and drawers to keep safe from “being stolen” to their original locations. I placed her personal possessions, like her Bible, to prominent places on her dressers and book shelves. I bought a house plant for her corner table because I want something alive and beautiful to be in there.
These rituals and acts seem to be helping me. The feelings of guilt, which experts say are inevitable, are subsiding. Increasing my physical activity, reconnecting with extended family and attending counseling are all helping too. My trauma counselor told me yesterday that it was like I was in a war and I was the medic, the frontline and the commander all at the same time. I know it’s going to take great effort and time to calm down from that and sort things out.
He also said that I’m doing really well. I like to think it’s because I have my mom’s fortitude. She was so strong. Her faith never wavered! I, also, like to think that I have her guidance now. I’m asking her for it every day.
My world has been turned upside down. I’m starting a journey without the constant anxiety and fear of what may happen any minute to my mama. That struggle went on for at least fifteen years. I know she’d want me to do what makes me happy. I’m trying, mama.
“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” –Michel Foucault
Despite my family’s best efforts to care for her and make sure she received adequate medical and mental health treatment, my beautiful mama passed away prematurely on February 27 at the age of 66.
My mom was the daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers and the youngest of eight children. She graduated from high-school and received her Associate’s Degree from Fresno City College, despite having to work in the fields with her family starting from a young age. She would marry her high-school sweetheart, my father, shortly after his return from the Vietnam War.
My mom was a devoted wife, mom, sister and aunt and would defend her family fiercely from all injustices and dangers. One of my earliest memories of her protecting me involves her confronting an older boy who was bullying me when I was in first grade. In talking with him, she convinced the older boy to act as a bodyguard for me against any further bullying from anybody.
When she was not busy working or advocating for us in our schools, my mom enjoyed hosting and feeding extended family and our friends. Whether with her lasagna or albondigas soup, my mom would regularly showcase her excellent cooking skills. Her menudo was particularly good. To this day, my dad adamantly says he has never had menudo as good as my mom’s. In recent weeks, my cousins have reminded me how central my mom’s love, charisma and generosity were to our larger family’s closeness and happiness.
My mom also loved and served the Lord dutifully. Indeed, the two things that made her happiest were being with friends and family and praising and sharing the “word of God”
with others. Her faith in and love for God shaped most of her relationships and many of her decisions. The joy she expressed in her faith would provide the ultimate benefit to one of her childhood friends when they would reach their 20s. My mom gave her friend religious testimony and counseling that literally saved her friend from a dark, depressing time. I learned about this in the tribute my mom’s friend gave at the funeral service. “I wanted that joy,” my mom’s friend said.
While the immediate cause of her death was kidney failure, I know the main culprits are a negligent and abusive healthcare system and callous and inhumane government. My beautiful mama began exhibiting signs of a serious mental illness as early as 2003. She began claiming people were out to get her and that microchips and hidden cameras were being used to track her movements and interfere with her thoughts.
After years of witnessing her neglect her diabetes and put herself in dangerous situations numerous times, I began intervening to try and get my mom help in the summer of 2007. By then and much to my agony, my mom was hearing voices and talking to herself. Little did I know how virtually impossible it would be to get the help my mom desperately needed.
From top to bottom, the healthcare system showed a constant disregard for my mom and our family. Medical doctors and hospitals had little patience and sympathy for someone who frequently would become distrustful and non-compliant (Patient Dumping from a Son’s Perspective). Skillful and caring counselors and psychiatrists we’d interact with were few. Even then, there was little they could do, given my mom did not believe she was ill and refused to take psychiatric medicine.
And while there is a legal basis to involuntarily hospitalize someone against their will, authority figures would regularly find my mom “self-directing” enough as the reason for them not to take action. For example, numerous police officers would say like pre-programed robots, “A person has to be lying down naked on the railroad tracks for us to take them in.” Hospital social workers would ask me “What does your mother want?” when I would request a psychiatric evaluation. Me saying “She wants to be with her family,” would garner little sympathy.
When she was homeless and living in a car for a time, I pointed out to a representative from the Californian Department of Public Health that she meets involuntary hospitalization legal criteria, since she was homeless as a result of her mental illness. I was told that, “Technically, a car roof is a roof over one’s head.”
Ultimately, in the end, though they were claiming to respect “civil rights,” they all were actually aiding and abetting a system that refuses to provide quality psychiatric hospitals and treatment and, instead, prefers to leave too many people to suffer, estranged from family and friends in the streets or thrown away in jails or prisons.
I moved my mother in with me in February ’16 because I could not continue to see her suffer and estranged from the family she loved and did so much for. I lost my mama twice, the first time to her mental illness and the second time, years later, to her physical illness. I was never able to have her be a fully healthy part of my life during most of my 20s and all of my 30s. Now I am 42 years old and will have to figure out how to rebuild and live my life without my beautiful mom.
I am currently seeing a grief counselor and it is clear I have a lot of trauma, emotions, and anxiety to work through. What will help me heal and prosper are the strength and courage my mom showed through her adversity. She never wavered from principles or lost her faith in the Lord or her will to live. I hope to become half as strong and half as principled in my life, particularly in my advocacy for a better healthcare and support system for caregivers and families. We deserve better. My mama deserved better. We love and miss you mom.
A little more than two days ago, on Sunday afternoon, my mom stopped taking her medicines. She told me the “Holy Spirit” told her to stop taking them because they were making her ill. She is insisting that she start taking herbs instead, referencing Ezekiel from the Bible.
Ezekiel 47:12 “And the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.”
I can’t say I’m surprised. My mom has stopped taking her medicines numerous times in the past, the last time being in February of last year. Then, it took merely 24hrs for her blood pressure to increase to over 200 and for her to start experiencing breathing complications from her congestive heart failure.
This time, her decision to stop taking her meds was more gradual. In recent weeks. she has been increasingly complaining about the medicines and, in fact, stopped taking one of her blood pressure medications around a week ago. In the last few months, she has also increasingly refused various treatments. She refused to treat her anemia (She didn’t like the weekly shots.) and refused to start prep for dialysis, despite reaching kidney failure stage. As of three weeks ago, her last appointment with her kidney doctor, her kidney function was at 13%.
Given her history, I saw a few different scenarios playing out the last few weeks, this being one of them. I know it’s exceedingly difficult for my mother to be confined to the house. It makes it too easy for her to withdraw into the prison of her mind. So I was hoping a short trip to one of her favorite vacation spots, Monterey, CA, would help improve her spirits and make her more cooperative for at least a little while, but no.
The first day went well enough. But during the evening, she woke up a few different times in the hotel room to conduct “spiritual warfare.” Upon returning Saturday, she slept well enough that night. She was tired from walking around the wharf that late morning. But after eating breakfast and taking her meds on Sunday morning, she returned to her usual fixation with the voices. After a couple of hours of intense conversation with herself, she came out of her room to announce to me what the “Holy Spirit” had told her.
[Me and mom having a conversation on Monday. Her BP hasn’t been over 200 since.]
For now, her heart rate is fluctuating a bit and her breathing seems OK. And although I know not to take her at face value, she says she’s not experiencing any pain anywhere. I’ve had my sister, a family friend and my aunt all talk to her about taking her meds to no avail. I’ve called her heart doctor and the county mental health crisis line to get some information and advice. The doctor said, predictably, to call social services and the crisis hotline operator said, also predictably, that I can call 9/11 if I need to.
I know the drill already, though. Emergency personnel can try to talk her into going to the hospital, but if she refuses, unless they see her as a clear danger to herself, they aren’t going to make her go. At some point, her blood pressure and/or glucose will get dangerous highly and I’ll have more leverage to request/demand they hospitalize her. I will probably make the call sometime Wednesday afternoon.
I’m of course very stressed out and worried about my mom. I frankly don’t think she will survive another hospitalization. The last two times she has been hospitalized, she never recovered to where she was prior to that. And I worry about the possibility of her becoming incapacitated in some way, leaving me to decide her fate. I don’t want that choice. I shouldn’t have to make that choice. My mom should have been given a chance at recovering and rebuilding her life years ago.
As a caretaker and advocate for my mom, I’m constantly reminded how much of what we have experienced, in dealing with my mom’s serious mental illness (SMI) and the mental health system, is reflective of the Latino/a experience. From problems with acquiring basic access to MH services, to trying to achieve adequate treatment and support, to the unresponsiveness on the part of MH professionals, to navigating cultural barriers in my family/community, all have been unnecessarily daunting. In our case, they have proven to be impossible to surmount in getting my mother adequate treatment.
Percentage wise, Latinos/as currently make up around 18% of the U.S. population. Around 16% of Latinos/as have experienced a mental illness in the last year, compared to 20% of whites, 16% of blacks and 13% of Asians.
In respect to Latino/a subgroups, young Latinos/as have higher rates of attempted suicide compared to whites. For males, it was 6.9% compared to 4.6%, respectively. For females, it was 13.5% compared to 7.9%. Among U.S. born Latinos/as, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans experience higher rates of mental illness than Cubans and other Latinos/as.
The rates may very well be higher, however, given the multiple barriers preventing Latinos/as from acknowledging they have a MI and receiving adequate treatment. In the case of my mother, it took years to get her an official diagnosis. (In the case of my father, the PTSD he developed from the Vietnam War wasn’t officially diagnosed until recently, after he retired.)
Regardless of race/ethnicity, denial is a common response towards MI. This was very much the case with my mom and family. In hindsight, it was clear there were times when my mom was harboring extreme delusions and experiencing bouts of mania. At crisis times, the situation would swing between heated arguments with her to just avoidance. We viewed her “locura” (“craziness”) as just part of her personality.
More specific to Latino/a families than denial is pride. We don’t like others to see our weaknesses. We don’t want to admit we even have any. For most of us, not being many, if any, generations removed from working class or impoverished backgrounds instills in us a deep-seated perseverance; an attitude encapsulated by the slogan “¡si se puede!”
In the case of my Mexican-American family, my parents grew up poor, working in the fields of the California’s Central Valley. As my dad describes in a story he likes to tell: “Teachers would ask us when school started in fall what we did over the summer. The white kids would say they went to Disneyland. I would say, ‘I worked.’”
Our pride certainly led us to downplay any problems with my mom. Our family was “successful.” Together, my parents made enough income to be considered “middle class.” Latino/a families are also very private. We don’t like to “air our dirty laundry.” Problems
are settled within the family. This extended to family gatherings. At times during these events, I would take it upon myself to try and help my mom socially navigate, in the hope of concealing any petulant and irrational behavior.
Attending extended family functions with her began to occur less frequently, however, as my mom’s mental health abruptly deteriorated. She’d begin accusing the family of working for the F.B.I to spy on her. She’d begin accusing my dad of trying to kill her by putting poisons in her food and drink. She’d wake up in the middle of the night and insist she heard people trying to get inside the house in order to kill her. Suggesting she see a psychiatrist just made my mom angry and hostile, and everyone more miserable.
About 3-4 years into this, into my mom exhibiting a SMI, I began to take a more direct role in trying to get help and treatment for her. By then, my parents were divorced, but still living together. My mom was unemployed and uninsured, and her psychosis was a constant. She had nowhere else to really go and my dad was reluctant to kick his high-school sweetheart out of his house. I rolled up my sleeves one summer and went to work.
Lack of health insurance was a significant barrier for us when I first tried to get her help. Indeed, it’s a problem experienced by too many Latinos/as. Until recently, 30% of Latinos/as lacked health insurance, compared to 11% of whites. That percentage has been significantly reduced, fortunately, due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
In 2008, however, George Bush Jr. was still president and my mom didn’t have an official diagnosis, essentially proof of a disability, we could use to apply for Medicaid.
I had little choice but to move my mom in with me in San Francisco. SF was in its early years of providing health care services to indigent, uninsured residents. I enrolled my mom and we began accessing community medical and mental health services.
Fast forward nine years later. Despite my best efforts, my mom still remains untreated. In that time, my mom has been released from hospitals against my wishes, homeless, and has developed various serious medical issues. Accessing MH outpatient services, whether community centers or county services, has proven to be entirely fruitless. Why see a psychiatrist, let alone take psychiatric meds, if you don’t believe you’re ill and believe the medicine is poison? I should mention, they won’t even see a person, unless the person makes the appointment themselves!
There are gross inadequacies and structural problems in our MH system. Nothing makes this more plainly obvious, perhaps, than the fact that our country’s largest MH treatment centers are prisons and jails. At a minimum, to address this, laws that prevent people like my mom from being effectively treated need to be amended, or ended, and the lack of psychiatric beds should be viewed for what it is, a national crisis!
More and better family education and outreach are essential too, in order to mitigate the cultural barriers that play a part in impeding Latino/a families from realizing and accepting they need help (The video above is a good example of what that looks like.). Truly universal healthcare is also a must. The last thing a family that is going through a MH crisis needs is more stress caused from excessive hospital/medical bills. Training and employing more culturally responsive and competent MH staff and psychiatrists, and expanding community MH centers/clinics, are also very important. The Latino/a mental health center we utilized in SF was a blessing in helping us finally get an official diagnosis for my mom.
I’ll advocate for these things for the rest of my life cause my mom, my family and community deserve respect and a decent quality of life.
 Rates of mental illness are from 2014 data provided by SAMSA.
There’s always something relating to our inadequate healthcare system I could write a blog post about. Given, however, that this month, June, is my mom’s 66th birthday, I decided to give my mom more of a direct voice. My mom doesn’t know that I have a blog or do any MH advocacy work for her, so I just told her I’m interviewing her for personal reasons, to record some family history.
I would love nothing more than my mom to be psychiatrically stable, willingly engaged in a treatment plan and able to talk openly about her serious mental illness. Instead, what follows is a person’s life that has essentially been robbed from her, in large part, due to a lack of access to adequate mental health treatment. My mom has no insight into her psychiatric illness and doesn’t even believe her physical/medical problems are severe. She’s still a person filled with aspirations, fears, accomplishments and disappointments, all the same.
Me: Given your health problems, what do you miss being able to do the most?
Mom: Just getting up and going to run an errand. Even if it’s just going to buy stamps or things that we need. I miss that a lot.
Me: Your diabetes is more stable, but are you still uninterested in taking insulin, like your doctor suggested?
Mom: I’m not interested. I had a terrible experience with it. I think the US is too sloppy with the FDA [Federal Drug Administration]. It was closed for years, not even doing their job. (My mom insists it was closed and that she used to have a newspaper clipping to prove it.)
Me: Do you actually believe you have diabetes?
Mom: I believe it’s brought on by evil spirits.
Me: How does that work exactly?
Mom: They come into your body as worms…and as minute organisms.
Me: So that’s how you got diabetes?
Mom: Yes. I was a very healthy woman.
Me: A more recent issue is your kidney issue. How’s treatment going?
Mom: I’ve had a little bit of improvement. And I’m praying for a total healing, so I’m not really worried about it.
Me: Remember that your kidney doctor said they were functioning at 16% the last time we saw him. Do you not believe they are going to get worse?
Me: Are you interested in prepping for dialysis and a kidney transplant?
Me: What’s going to help your kidneys improve then?
Mom: Prayer and lots of faith. Like the Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe.”
Me: Do you even believe you have kidney issues?
Mom: There is some trouble, but it’s demon oriented.
Me: So, you came to live with me, initially, around 8 yrs ago in San Francisco. That didn’t workout. Around a year after you moved out, you became homeless. Where was God in that time?
Mom: He has been there, but the devils attacked our car. They wrecked into us terribly. (My mom and my uncle, her brother, were evicted from their apartment and essentially homeless, living in a car, for close to two years.)
Me: OK, but why no housing for almost two years?
Mom: Because they kept on breaking into our house whenever we would leave.
Me: [Interrupting] OK, but why would God let that happen to you?
Mom: It’s not that he allowed it. He was overwhelmed with so much work everywhere! He can’t be somewhere and anywhere at every second, like people think.
Me: Do you think you might have mental health issues that need to be addressed?
Mom: Vicki (her counselor) is on my lying list. She was supposed to visit me at home last time and was a no show.
Me: That wasn’t the question. What do you think about possibly having a mental illness? Did Dr. T (real name withheld) in SF ever diagnosis you with anything?
Mom: I don’t care about Dr T. He started out being reasonable…at first. And then it got too heavy for him. He started being influenced by the other side.
Me: Have you ever taken any psychiatric drugs?
Mom: I took what he recommended, but it made me feel drunk. (She took a small dosage of Abilify, too small to even have any real affect. The Dr. started her off at a small dosage, in order to build trust with her and reduce the side effects. Her current psychiatrist has also tried to get her to start taking a small dosage of medicine.)
Me: Anything else?
Mom: Zyprexa. I’ll take my half a pill.
Me: You need to take it every day, like the doctor said, but you don’t.
Mom: Because it was too much.
Me: What do you have to say to someone that may think you have a mental illness?
Mom: What are the facts? Because I say there is “spiritual warfare” everywhere? You can go to a restaurant. You can go to a church. There are people of the dead in there. You can discern it. And sometimes they’re too nosey. And when they are too nosey, they are spying on you.
Me: Who? The devil, the government, who? I lose track of everything that you blame.
Mom: The ones who are serving the enemy, whether it be a witch, a warlock, an anti-christ, a Satanist or a devil.
Me: Is the FBI still following you?
Mom: <scoffs> They, umm…. They try to get in with the Sherriff’s office down the street or the police everywhere.
Me: So, the answer is “yes.” The FBI is still after you.
Mom: <Getting agitated.> No, I said the police! They get hoodwinked by the witchcraft and Satanists!
Me: OK. So, what are some plans/goals of yours?
Mom: To get healthier, get better. I want to see and visit my family in Bakersfield more. I want to meet religiously righteous people and make new friends.
Me: Name one thing you like about living with me.
Mom: That I get to see you more. (Aside from her brother, she was estranged from the family for years.)
Me: Name one thing you don’t like.
Mom: You don’t feed me enough.
Me: Oh brother. (She means I don’t feed her what she wants to eat enough.)
This interview misses my mom’s more charismatic, funny and caring side. But it does make clear enough how much my mom is living in an altered/delusional state. Indeed, my mom’s mental illness has worsened, due to going untreated for so long. She hasn’t always heard voices, for example, and her delusions have increasingly become more elaborate and detached from reality.
Despite her steady deterioration, experience with homelessness and repeated hospitalizations, various MH and law enforcement authorities have regularly deemed her “self-directing enough” to not warrant involuntary psychiatric treatment. Her predicament is, also, too often ignored by MH advocacy groups that prefer to focus on people that have recovered and positive stories. The MH system is broken and has denied my mom a chance at recovery and our family of appropriate healing and sufficient peace. She’s deserving of love and dignity, though, which is why I’ll never stop fighting for her. Happy Birthday, mama! (I’m taking her to Monterey, CA next week as a birthday gift. She hasn’t been there in around 15 yrs.)