Pa. lacking in care for mentally ill

Nearly one in 25 adults lives with a serious mental illness. And there is a cost to society and to families for treating mentally ill citizens the way we do.

We spoke with the family of a Cumberland County man, Jermaine Allen.

“When he is not stable, when he’s not taking his medication, we do not feel safe,” Jermaine’s mother Ann said,

Jermaine was a happy, charming, bright boy who loved animals. But at 17, he was diagnosed as bipolar with psychosis. At 28, he’s living on the streets of Cumberland County.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s heartbreaking,” Ann Allen said.

Jermaine’s father, retired Army Colonel Chuck Allen, is a leadership professor at the Army War College in Carlisle. He says when Jermaine was living at home, they took precautions.

“In the evenings, we took to locking our doors, making sure he’s asleep before we go to bed, things like that,” he said.

Jermaine has punched out windows, doors and walls. He tends not to take his medicine. The side effects feel worse to him than the manic or depressive episodes.

In tears, Ann said, “I am heartbroken for my son because he was such a happy, sweet child and right now he’s not happy.”

He can’t keep a job or housing or friends. And he can’t get the help he needs. There’s virtually no long-term housing and the wait for a psychiatrist is at least two months.

Senator Pat Vance (R-Cumberland/York) heads the Health and Welfare committee. She’s also an registered nurse. She says the shortage of community psychiatrists is a major problem in Pennsylvania. She hears about it from parents like Jermaine’s.

“I find it so sad,” Vance said. “They’re trying so hard to be good parents. They want to take care of the children.”

Also in Pennsylvania, most communities don’t have psychiatric ambulances.

“If you’re having a coronary they’re going to send an ambulance. If you’re having a mental health breakdown, they call the police and put you in handcuffs,” Vance said.

Decades ago, psychiatric hospitals across the country started closing. Harrisburg’s is gone. It now houses state offices. The only two left in the state that can handle those considered dangerous are in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It takes seven months to get in. As a result, many end up in prison.

“It’s not good public policy that the Secretary of Corrections is delivering more mental health services than any other entity in the state,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.

Over the past 30 years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of mentally ill Pennsylvanians in prison. Right now, they make up 24 percent of all inmates. At the Camp Hill prison alone, there are more than 3,000.

“You send me an individual who’s mentally ill because we know they’re going to get the treatment they need, but they’re going to come out the back end worse,” Wetzel said. “Do you want that? Do you want that person moving next to you? I mean, enough already.”

Some need to be in prison, but experts say most don’t and could get healthy in a proper facility. But wouldn’t that be more expensive?

“When you just talk about cost, I think that one could make the argument, assuming you can assure public safety, it’s much cheaper to not incarcerate someone at the state level,” Wetzel said.

Vance agrees. She says pay now or pay later.

“We can’t afford not to in my opinion,” she said. “This is somebody’s life and it can destroy whole families.”

Families like the Allens. Jermaine has been in and out of the county prison. His parents pray things don’t get worse.

“He knows he’s not doing well, but he doesn’t seem to be able to find his way out of it,” Ann Allen said.

However, this week, Jermaine agreed to go to a psychiatrist. But the next time he can get an appointment with someone who takes his family’s insurance is September.

If you or a loved one need help, visit the National Alliance On Mental Illness website at nami.org. The Cumberland County chapter has been very helpful for the Allens.

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