“New York will treat mentally ill, even if they refuse.” My God, I thought, can this be true? Has reason finally prevailed? Is insight and compassion about to rule the day?
A quick scan of other media concurred. The mayor of New York, overwhelmed by the city’s crime-ridden population of homeless and mentally ill, had changed the rules. From now on, he announced, police and city medics would have broad powers to provide intervention and care—even to the extent of involuntary hospitalization—for those deemed mentally unwell
“No more walking by or looking away,” Mayor Eric Adams declared, describing the city’s new policy as “a moral obligation to act.” My own instinctive response was a whispered “amen.” For the first time in years, in fact, I felt hopeful regarding the future well-being of people for whom I have often felt only despair.
Let me explain.
My son, Drew, was still a teenager when he started acting strangely. He’d always had an active imagination; even in elementary school he entertained classmates with wild tales of a mysterious character called Carlos who only he could see. Then he got arrested for setting fire to trash cans, stole candy from a liquor store, and ran away from home. Perhaps most troubling, Drew began hearing the voices of people who weren’t really there. It all came to a head one afternoon when, following an absence of several days, we found him at an abandoned construction site almost dead from drinking discarded liquid sealant. It was the beginning of a decades-long ordeal that continues to this day.
Over the years, Drew’s mom and I have spent thousands of dollars, uncountable hours, and myriads of miles trying to get our son the care he’s needed, often without success. Eventually, after several more suicide attempts and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia with bipolar disorder, we managed to avail him of the only potentially helpful option: a court-ordered conservatorship. Which, after trying several unsuccessful temporary placements, finally implemented the long-term hospitalization that ultimately saved his life.
But conservatorships have to be renewed each year. And most patients with schizophrenia—including our son—don’t even believe they’re ill, let alone voluntarily take medications or submit to lifesaving care.
In the past 17 years, Drew’s conservatorship has been terminated twice, inexplicably and with tragic results. The first time he spent a year homeless and hungry on the streets of Hollywood strung out on methamphetamine. That episode ended in an intensive care unit where he lay unconscious after getting knocked out by a fellow vagrant with whom he’d picked a fight.
Drew’s second release resulted in a six-month incarceration for assaulting an innocent housekeeper. Only then were we miraculously able to get him re-conserved and re-hospitalized with the help of friends in high places.
I say miraculously because involuntary care is routinely opposed by powerful forces more concerned with the right to refuse treatment than with ensuring public safety or protecting delusional patients. “The mayor is playing fast and loose with the legal rights of New Yorkers,” American Civil Liberties Union spokesperson Donna Lieberman told the Los Angeles Times in response to Adams’ announcement. Jacquelyn Simone, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, agreed: “Mayor Adams,” she proclaimed, “continues to get it wrong…”
Here’s my two cents: I don’t think so. In fact, I’m profoundly encouraged by the changing tenor of the conversation surrounding mental illness in America. Yesterday I learned that my son’s annual conservatorship hearing is happening this week after three postponements caused by Drew’s refusal to attend.
“He’s still quite delusional” and wants to be released, his conservator reports.
We are praying he won’t get his wish.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino,” is due out next month. A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he helped write two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Weekly.