As soon as the House Health and Human Services Committee began to discuss ways to improve Georgia’s pockmarked mental health care system this session, it quickly became clear that lawmakers were speaking from their own, sometimes terrible, experiences.
The chair, Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, described growing up in a home with her stepmother, who had paranoid schizophrenia.
State Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, a Democrat from Snellville, talked about being a clinical social worker and seeing children as young as 5, already suffering from serious mental health challenges.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, talked about the flaws she’s seen in Georgia’s mental health system as a court-appointed conservator for people with mental illness.
But no one has described an experience quite like that of state Rep. Todd Jones, whose oldest son, Justin, was diagnosed as bipolar when he was an honor roll student at South Forsyth High School and has struggled with increasingly severe mental illness ever since.
I spoke with Jones and his wife Tracey this week about Justin, now 25, and the labyrinth of insurance companies, hospitals, treatment facilities and even jails that the family has had to navigate in a desperate attempt to help their son survive.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Georgians struggling with mental illness or trying to help someone in distress, they have found in-patient beds in short supply, insurance companies curtailing treatment, law enforcement involved where mental health workers would be better, and a state infrastructure falling short for patients of every age and income.
It began for the Jones family when Justin was still in high school.
“We didn’t know it at first, but going into his junior year, he had started having an issue with substance abuse,” Tracey recounted. After time at a treatment facility and working with a counselor, they hoped the crisis was behind them.
But Justin began a downward spiral during his first semester away at college. Looking to put him in immediate care, they had to look to center in Utah for help, only Justin to try to jump from the car midway there.
“The next five days were the worst five days of our entire lives,” Tracey said.
Although the Jones did manage to check Justin in for inpatient care, that episode was followed by years of up and down periods for their son, marked by hallucinations, homelessness, delusional outbursts, and speaking in languages only Justin knew.
Despite his acute symptoms, the Jones said Justin was routinely discharged from the most intense treatment, or from facilities entirely, before they saw improvement , but when insurance companies said it was time to leave.
A spreadsheet Tracey keeps shows more than 30 hospitalizations in different facilities, both in and out of Georgia, over the last eight years.
An eventual diagnosis of Schizoaffective disorder was slow to come — all, they believe, because the most serious disorders, along with the most intense therapies, cost insurers and hospitals the most to treat.
“It’s not a broken arm. It’s not going to fix in six to eight weeks,” Tracey said. “If he needs to be there longer, he needs to be there longer.”
Their lowest moment came when a trusted mental health professional suggested they find a way for Justin to commit a felony. The prison system, they were told, could be his only chance in Georgia to get the kind of long-term treatment he needed.
“Did you just say you want my son to become a felon?” Todd recalled saying in response. “They said, ‘That’s his best choice.’ And immediately you say the entire system isn’t just broken. It’s gone.”
The legislation that Todd Jones and other lawmakers have been crafting for months is designed to address as many of the gaps in the system as possible that he and his colleagues have seen first hand. It has been informed by a two-year study to gather additional data, and is the top priority for House Speaker David Ralston.
It will focus on the most critical patients, the “familiar faces” in the state’s E.R.s, county jails, and street corners where people with severe substance abuse and mental illness too often find themselves.
Rep. Oliver said a particular effort also will be targeted at children “in the deep end of the system,” especially those in foster care.
Among many provisions, the bill includes a requirement that insurers cover mental health care just as they cover physical health care. It would also expand inpatient and outpatient treatment options; provide first-responders with access to mental health professionals for urgent calls, and expand the mental health workforce by funding incentives for students to pursue training in the field.
Rep. Hutchison said she worries that the system in Georgia is so fundamentally flawed, putting resources and fixes on top of what’s wrong will only compound the dysfunction she sees.
But it’s a good bill, she said. And like the other Democrats and Republicans on committee that she and Jones are on, she voted for it Wednesday.
The Jones’ son is currently in long-term treatment, placed there after a threat to a police officer did, indeed, land him in jail.
But after a longer in-patient stay than he’s ever had, he’s also doing better than his parents have seen in a long time. He texted his mother Wednesday, which was a victory of its own.
Even though the Joneses have more plans to improve the system for others going forward, they are both still reduced to tears at the thought of grieving “the old Justin,” the son they used to know and who may be lost to his mental illness forever.
“God blessed that young man with intellect, charm, empathy…” Todd Jones said. “He was going to change the world.”
But changing the world can take many forms. And if the General Assembly can pass a bill to help other Georgians in crisis, informed partly by his parents’ own attempts to save their son, Justin Jones will have changed the world nonetheless.
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