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Sonoma County readers share their stories of mental health crises

The Press Democrat - 8/27/2017

Aug. 27--A Cotati woman describes a fragmented system of mental health care that at times treated her with dignity while at others like a criminal or animal. A Santa Rosa mother decries a system of services that abandons all but the wealthy and very poor. And a Santa Rosa man recalls that his experience in a hospital emergency room was "worse almost than my actual disease."

These are some of the stories readers shared with The Press Democrat following a three-week series examining gaps in the local mental health system that have sent a growing number of people with mental illness to hospital emergency rooms and the Sonoma County Jail -- now the largest psychiatric treatment facility in the county.

They are the stories of people who live amongst us. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States have some type of mental illness -- and nearly 1 in 25 a serious mental illness, a number that would equate to more than 20,000 people in Sonoma County -- according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The Press Democrat asked readers to tell us, in their own words, about their experiences with the county's mental health system. The following, which have been edited for length and clarity, is just some of what we received:

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My son struggles with mental health issues and was diagnosed with bipolar at 19. He is now 24 and that diagnosis has changed from bipolar to schizo-effective to schizophrenia. He was diagnosed in 2013 and six months later he was first hospitalized at Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital.

After multiple 5150s and subsequent hospitalizations, he was conserved by the state in December 2014 for one year. He worked his way to Parker Hill and Tamayo House. In July he was conserved for the second time in San Francisco due to no beds available in Sonoma County. He was transferred to a facility on the Central Coast. It was clearly evident that he was overmedicated by the facility. That resulted in him being hospitalized for lithium poisoning where he needed dialysis.

After we advocated for him to return to Sonoma County, he was transferred to Sonoma County's Crisis Stabilization Unit. From there he was transferred back to Creekside Hospital and is now at Hope House.

He's on meds right now, and when he's on his meds he's amazingly much more functional. I'm hopeful that with the support he's receiving from the county, and with the support of his family who loves him very much, that he will have options open to him as he continues down this path. His mental issues today look very different than they did five years ago.

I know that advocacy has helped him and a careful defining line on our part has led him through the system. Easy? Absolutely not!!! He's young. Am I hopeful? Yes! Do we continue to show our support? Yes! Do we feel we alone can offer the support he needs? No! We need county support services and the caring support of many, many individuals.

In the beginning, as parents we needed relief. All we wanted was to get him hospitalized. We needed some help with something we did not understand very well. That was a good first step, but it certainly isn't the end-all. As soon as he's let out of the hospital, the first thing he does is stop taking his meds. As he gains insight to his issues, maybe that will change. It takes a village on so many levels. I know that my husband and I could not do it independently.

There's still a whole lifetime ahead of him and we're going to be learning along with him. There should not be such a distinction between mental and physical illness. There are many ways to be on this Earth, many ways, and no one way is better than the other. It just requires different steps along the way.

Connie Petereit, Healdsburg

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My middle-aged daughter is bipolar. Our mental health options are poor. The very expensive options usually put drug addiction recovery as the primary problem when it is a secondary problem. The government-subsidized programs require poverty and homelessness and waiting; mainly clients who have nowhere else to go.

My daughter lives with me. I do not want her to be homeless. So how does she get support? She has to get SSI. They turned her down. She is supposed to petition that. How do you fight for something with no self-esteem? She doesn't know why life is so hard -- she did not pick this. All the suicide attempts have left scars and shame. The car wrecks and ruined holidays ... just shame.

I wish there were a place in this world that helped people who have family but do not want to spend thousands a month on a treatment clinic with people they do not know. How does it help anyway? I don't know how to help.

Mother, who asked to remain anonymous, Santa Rosa

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I have a daughter, 42, that has mental health issues and substance abuse disease. She has been in and out of jail so many times the last six years I've lost count. I am beyond frustrated at the way she and many others are treated. We closed all the mental health hospitals for a good reason but we didn't implement any resolution or resources for this population.

I don't know what my daughter's exact diagnosis is at this point. She was given a dual diagnosis of addiction and bipolar at (age) 15. But after I got legal guardianship of her three children over six years ago, I believe autism may be playing a role.

I have always had to help my daughter because she was always not quite with it -- like no executive-functioning and she had a very hard time with people and leaving the house. When the drugs came into play, all hell broke loose and I had to kick her out for everyone's sanity. She ended up on the streets where she is getting beaten up. Her stuff is constantly getting stolen.

I have taken her to Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES) on Chanate Road, had the police "5150" her and many times have been told she was being held in the jail's mental health unit because her mental competency was in question. I have personally taken her to PES only to be told she has a drug addiction and to take her somewhere else. And she has taken herself there to get help and gotten none. The mental health system in Sonoma County is broken. I've been to court and witnessed her staggering, drooling, not able to keep her head up or eyes open without being prompted and she had been in jail for five days.

I'm sure they gave her something because she was acting out, but she was not fit to be in front of a judge. The police in Petaluma have asked me why I can't get her conserved. This is crazy and she's not the only one. This is a mental health issue and a perfect example of why the state of California should implement Casey's Law to give families and judges the power to mandate treatment.

Lashone Gulley, Petaluma

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I was diagnosed with mental illness in my mid-20s, which is a common age to receive such a diagnosis. I've had many painful, astonishing and horrible experiences at psychiatric hospitals and in a residential treatment facility for adults with emotional and mental disorders. They've left me feeling mistreated and stigmatized. I have also had some great experiences.

The program at a Kaiser facility in Martinez was very helpful. We were treated well and learned a lot. Group therapy, individual therapy, assertiveness training, art therapy, music therapy and (optional) spiritual therapy were highly insightful and helpful. I learned a lot of helpful therapeutic techniques which I could apply to my life. The Aurora facility in Santa Rosa on Fulton Road has had several names over the years. The treatment I received there was almost as good as at the Kaiser facility. The facility in Oakland was chilling. Locked up, unmedicated, threatened with solitary confinement, being treated like an animal, were what my three times there consisted of. I was truly terrified. My fellow patients were also.

I've been put into four-point restraints for hours without even water to drink. I've been blacklisted at a place I was going to move to because, as the manager put it, "We don't want people like you to live here." I have hurt myself intentionally on many occasions. Often I have requested hospitalization at such times, only to be denied because I was chronic, but not acute.

When I was diagnosed, we had a local psychiatric ward for people who just had Medi-Cal. I was extremely fortunate to have a local place to go. This is still a huge problem for people with Medi-Cal now, who have no place local to go and end up waiting long periods of time to get sent to a different county.

Currently I live in a condo in Cotati. My life is better than I ever dared to think it would be. I have Medicare and Medi-Cal, Section 8 housing, and have not been hospitalized in years. I have a great support network -- parents, friends, a therapist, a doctor and fellow 12-step meeting friends who are incredible.

But I also had to fight so hard to get to where I am now. Going to 12-step meetings (I'll have 27 years in the program in September), having an active spiritual life, working out at the gym in Rohnert Park for hours each visit, seeing my therapist, and feeling so much more understood than I ever had before are critical aspects to my ongoing recovery.

It has been very hard, sometimes scary, and sometimes jaw-dropping, but I am so grateful for the life I have now. Having faith in a Higher Power has been absolutely crucial to me.

I am so glad that this intractable problem is getting so much attention. Change starts with knowledge. I think it's great that they are building a mental health building at the jail. Putting people with mental illness into essentially "solitary confinement" is so abhorrent!

Try putting a "normal" person in such a setting for 4 1/2 months, and see if they don't develop mental problems! It's beyond my understanding that this could happen in Sonoma County.

Janie Haggerty, Cotati

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I was in Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital emergency department in February 2016 and the whole experience was worse almost than my actual disease. I suffer from major depression and all I had was an anxiety attack. I went up to Psychiatric Emergency Services on Chanate Road for help and the only thing they could do is lock me up.

I was so pissed off I could have screamed. I didn't get into Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital until midnight the next day. I needed immediate psychiatric help and I was put on hold for over 12-plus hours, because I spent so much time in the Sutter emergency department to get evaluated, and even that evaluation turned out wrong.

They discharged me from Aurora 10 days later without any counselor or psychiatrist lined up and my meds were all wrong. I got worse and almost hanged myself in July 2016. Finally, I got into St. Joseph outpatient mental health services on College Avenue. There, I finally got on the anti-depressants I needed and received the real help I needed. I started to improve from the second day there. I finally finished that program weeks later, feeling myself again.

The psychiatric help I first received almost killed me, and I am a very treatable patient, cooperative, 40 years myself working in the medical field. Something needs to be done, not only in Sonoma County but of course the USA.

Dennis Dowd, Santa Rosa

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My son, Michael J. Mataragas, died by suicide on Jan. 19, 2014. He had just turned 24 years old on Jan. 12. He was leaving Petaluma, where he lived with me, to go watch the 49ers playoff game with his father in South San Francisco. I know he must've heard a voice crossing the Golden Gate Bridge because he jumped without hesitation and his car had all his things for a weekend visit with his father.

Overall, what is so heart-wrenching is you are going through the worst thing in the world, your child is unhappy and you find out it is due to a mental illness and then you don't have the resources and support you need, like you would if it were a disease like cancer, diabetes, etc.

For 10 years, we didn't know what was wrong and then our son had his "first break" and is put in a hospital in Santa Clara when we lived in Petaluma. Basically after bringing him home two weeks later it was just up to him to take his meds and us to make sure he did. We were given a brochure to call NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) but no other follow-up after our son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

We need resources in our own community so we have a fighting chance at supporting our loved ones without jumping through hoops and trying to figure out how we are going to get our loved ones to a place they probably don't really want to even go to. If it is not convenient, chances are slim that it will be utilized.

The next hospitalization was in Oakland for two weeks, again we lived in Petaluma. Upon going to pick him up I got lost at least twice and it was very scary driving him home from a place I didn't know and he was on meds and confused and exhausted. I remember going to an ATM in Oakland to try to get money to cross the bridge to come home and my son got out of the car and started talking to a stranger on the street. I had to get back in the car and get him in the car and went across the bridge without cash. I was unorganized due to the stress of it, all alone with my sick child and far from home.

Sonoma is not a tiny, rinky-dink town. We deserve care here, our ill loved ones deserve care here, their families deserve care here and our fellow Sonomans deserve care here, so that we can all thrive together as best we can.

I now try to work with Kaiser psychiatry headquarters in Oakland to help Kaiser nationwide come up with ways to better serve their mentally ill members, their families and their greater communities. I act as a "peer mom" to help Kaiser understand better what would be helpful for families that are the "hospital at home" for their loved ones.

Victoria Mataragas, Santa Rosa

This report was produced as a project for the California Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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(c)2017 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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