On a recent evening in Vancouver, Washington, more than 80 people gathered at the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They were there for a forum organized by a fledging group of moms whose severely mentally ill children have struggled to get the help they need in Washington state — sometimes with deadly consequences.
“We are all part of a tribe that we have joined whether we wanted to or not,” mother Jerri Clark told the packed room.
Clark founded the group Mothers of the Mentally Ill (MOMI) last spring after her 22-year-old son Calvin, a former college student and debate scholar, was arrested for allegedly breaking into a home during a mental health crisis.
Over the previous three years, Calvin, who has a severe form of bipolar disorder, has been in and out of jail and mental hospitals. He’s also attempted suicide and been homeless. His behavior got so erratic in January 2017 that Clark took out a protection order against him following an incident at their home where the police were called.
In Clark’s experience, help for her son wasn’t available until he was in such an extreme state of decompensation that he posed an imminent threat to himself or others. At that point, he qualified for involuntary hospitalization under state law.
State law sets a high bar for involuntary commitment because of concerns about civil liberties. But many families say the unintended consequence is their loved ones often end up in jail when what they need is mental health help.
Now, Clark and fellow parents are demanding that Washington politicians change the state's mental health system.
"Violence is a requirement for care," Clark said. "Everyone knows this doesn’t make any sense."