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Opinion Prince George’s County‘s mental health programs don’t work. When will someone listen?

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It’s Dec. 29, 1 p.m., and I’m at a hospital in Prince George’s County. The emergency room is packed with people with varying degrees of illnesses. Many have severe colds; others have flu symptoms. Some have broken ribs or fractures and cuts and bruises from domestic violence (and broken hearts). Sadly, some have come here to die, their families clinging to the hope that this talented yet overwhelmed staff can whip up a miracle.

And then there are the hidden wounded, the too-often voiceless who are treated as though they are the living dead. They don’t seem to matter. Those whose souls are tormented, those with delusions, with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The mentally ill fight a battle every day — they battle to want to live, to not hurt others so they may live, to run from those who would take their life because the hidden wounds of mental illness are too often misunderstood.

These men and women often stay in the ER and triage area until the elusive open bed in a psychiatric ward is found. When that coveted prize the mentally ill need so desperately does appear, it is available for only a brief stay. And while in the psychiatric ward, patients with mental illness often are given a round of very serious medications — but they do not get to stay long enough to see whether those medications work.

On Dec. 27, I took my son to the emergency room. After 9 p.m. on the third day, we were still waiting for that promised treasure — the psychiatric bed. My son, a musically gifted soul in his early 20s, chose to go to the hospital, trying to be safe from himself, from the demons that cause havoc in his head.

The process for getting help for the people with mental illness in Prince George’s County is like running on a treadmill: It never ends. Nothing is ever easy or organized. I know Prince George’s isn’t the worst place for mental-health care, but it is where my son and I live, so it is of paramount importance to us.

While we were waiting in the emergency room, my son did not get his normal round of psychotropic medications (which I hate, but they supposedly keep him stable and sane), so I constantly had to remind the ER nurse about the reasons for his agitation and the mania phase of his bipolar and schizophrenic conditions. He is idiot savant autistic — musically, so he always has music in his head, sometimes accompanied by racing thoughts. This traffic in his head is what leads to the episodic series that plays out in the emergency room.

And this episode was not a good one. He was put on a gurney in the hallway of the triage area, where he watched and heard and smelled and engaged with everything that went by.

This young, black man came in voluntarily to get treated for his mental illness event, to be safe and to find help. But, seemingly, there is not a chance that is going to happen in Prince George’s County. If there are no beds, they send him away. If I can’t get a petition in time from the court magistrate for involuntary hospitalization, he’ll end up in jail. And nobody seems to notice.

A mosaic is often composed of jagged pieces of glass, stones, gems and odds and ends that are fitted together to form a picture. Help for people with mental illness in Prince George’s County is like a mosaic, but it’s left to patients and their families to fit the pieces together. We are tired of cutting and breaking and splintering and hurting. We are tired of programs that don’t work for the mentally ill.

But, of course, we have nothing but a voice. When will someone hear?

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: How Maryland should respond to severe mental illness

DJ Jaffe: Don’t deny the link between serious mental illness and violence

Rosalynn Carter and Patrick J. Kennedy: We must treat mental and bodily health the same. It’s a matter of human rights.

Kate Farinholt, Jean Harris and Rhonda Thissen: Three ways to get people the mental-health care they need