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Published April 30, 2019

Dorothea’s Dilemma: Raleigh’s Historic Struggle With Mental Illness

Two years ago, right at the end of the city council campaign season, my therapist and Physician Assistant changed the depression medication I was taking. It was not good timing. After a series of events that changed my life, I was involuntarily committed to Wake Med’s mental health section.

Those events infected every part of my life. Everyone suffered, not just from the events, but from the fallout. After 9 days in the hospital I was handcuffed again and moved to Ahoskie, NC, over 2 hours from Raleigh. I was in Ahoskie for just under 24 hours when I was released.

What I learned is partly very private to me. But some of it needs to be public. I’ll share with you why I’ve made mental health care my mission.

North Carolina needs to change how we treat people in crisis.

Our lives are often chaotic, a constant cycle of medication management, chaos, and recovery. As my campaign begins, we will discuss how to make sure Raleigh doesn’t follow the road of other cities who believed it wasn’t in their area of control.

When Raleigh Police Confront Someone with a Mental Illness

This March a man named Kyron Hinton struggling with a mental illness died from a drug overdose.

His bad night began a month after mine. It was far worse, but like the rest of you I watched him on the TV and couldn’t help but feel it very personally. Kyron was repeatedly bitten by a police dog, and as he struggled in his delusion, the officers reacted. The case is still pending in court and very capable folks are working to make sure that his family receives justice.

I don’t need to judge Kyron or the officers to know that our system is not succeeding the way we would hope. His case illustrates that the system just needs to be better. I compare mental illness to the ocean. Though it’s right at our feet, we have no idea what’s hidden below, and its mystery is beyond us. Diagnosis is usually the first step, but it is just a collection of symptoms. The medicines work sometimes and when they do, the side effects can be nearly as harmful as our illnesses. Often folks give up. I believe that’s what ultimately led to Kyron’s overdose. He tried to medicate himself repeatedly and the medicines didn’t help enough. He couldn’t manage it. He was a good man. I called him every month or so to tell him someone was there thinking about him. It wasn’t enough. He overmedicated his illness and he died.

Raleigh officers I’ve spoken to say that every case involving mental illness, you don’t know what you are going to get. They say what you see can change and can become deadly in an instant. I believe the officers trying to care for me did their best, but it was me who made the decisions about my fate and that night I was not prepared to make any decisions. A simple medication change can be a really bad thing sometimes. I still grieve the passing of Kyron and remember it could have been me.

Raleigh’s History with Treating Mental Illness

We need a new Dorothea Lynde Dix. Ms. Dix was the namesake of that hill, our beautiful new park, and was instrumental in changing how folks viewed people with mental health impairments.

Dix wrote in a Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts in 1843, “I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.” She was a hero, and I admire her deeply. We need a new Dorothea Dix, a modern approach to helping people understand mental illness.

Good people made Dix a hospital, but over the years our legislature moved services away from the Dix facility to Butner, hours away from here. I was moved to a private facility in Ahoskie, North Carolina, 2 hours from home. That doesn’t serve Raleigh very well. It deprives our most vulnerable of their most healing asset, their family. I consider the actions of the state in cooperation with the county and city the breaking of trust.

While most folks believe that conditions of the property transfer to the state of North Carolina included language requiring the state to perpetually provide beds for “the Insane,” that understanding is incorrect. The language is arcane, but in defense of the legislature, they were not legally bound to replace the care taken away as Dix Hill closed. Regardless, UNC hospitals paid 40 million toward mental health care and the state moved those facilities to Butner.

Raleigh Needs Local Options for Mental Healthcare

Having defended the legislature, I’ll turn and ask the state and county to do more. Raleigh also needs to get involved. We should be a partner in providing something Dorothea would be proud of. It’s time for the city of Raleigh to take care of its own. I believe we haven’t even done what is in our own best interest.

Mental illness affects 1 in 5 adults, but only 56 percent of patients in the US receive mental health treatment, and there is only 1 professional of any type per 1,000 sufferers. Care in the whole country is staggeringly insufficient. The consequences are increased costs in education, social services, policing, incarceration, high joblessness, homelessness, increased domestic violence, and even as we have seen, death. Failing to provide excellent and effective care costs our country billions of tax dollars every year, not even counting actual treatment. We have done ourselves a disservice. We could have cared for folks and loved them as our neighbors.

The argument I hear most often is “Raleigh isn’t responsible for that.” Well I believe we should choose to be, at least before we start work on the next city amenity. We could see a dramatic return on investment if we get it right.

I also hear that “we don’t owe every drifter that wanders our way a thing.” Well maybe, maybe not, but it is definitely our concern that we don’t suffer the homelessness and foreseeable crime other cities have. We need a mental health safety net that makes it possible for folks to succeed in their life and contribute to the great city. Instead, as we’ve been doing, we just send them off to Butner.

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  • Olen Leo III Watson

    Olen

  • Olen Watson and his family have lived in Raleigh since 1952. A former Marine, when Olen returned from service, he worked in information technology, as a Special Education teacher, construction project management, and now works as a carpenter. After having run for District C in 2017, Olen is running for Raleigh City Council at large. All my articles.

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