The City Wire special report: Jesus on the 6th floor

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 90 views 

Editor’s note: This is another story in a series of stories on mental illness issues. Throughout 2010 The City Wire will attempt to post at least one story a month on this often hidden affliction. The list of previous articles in this series is located at the end of this story.

story by Marla Cantrell
[email protected]

Years ago, before Major Dean Pitts was a major in the Fort Smith Police Department, he drove Jesus Christ to Sparks Regional Medical Center.

“He was the third Jesus to be admitted to the 6th floor,” Pitts said. “They put me in a little conference room with him — no bigger than a closet, really — while they were waiting for someone to evaluate him, and he was talking about how he’d been denied three times. I don’t mind telling you, the little, short hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.”

That was back when Sparks and St. Edward Mercy had psychiatric wards. And it was before Pitts had formal training on how to deal with the mentally ill. Today, he teaches classes to every officer at the Fort Smith Police Department.

“We talk about major depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and some personality disorders. We talk about treatment, medications, and symptoms. Some medications are kind of a giveaway. If someone tells you they’re taking Lithium, which is actually an anti-seizure medicine by design, there’s a good chance that they have bi-polar disorder.”

Once that’s out of the way, the hands-on training begins.

“I try to dispel some fallacies that are common beliefs. So many people think schizophrenics have multiple personalities. Well, they don’t. … But they do hear voices and have visual hallucinations as well. I have one person play the part of someone who has schizophrenia. I have another play the police officer trying to talk to them. And then I get two people to stand on either side of the schizophrenic and I have one say nice things in one ear, and I have another saying mean and nasty things in the other. … At the end I ask the officer how it felt to talk to this (mentally ill) person and they talk about their frustration. No response, not understanding, feeling annoyed. The person playing the schizophrenic will say he saw the officer’s mouth moving, but I couldn’t understand him. They often get angry because they can’t understand.”

And that’s where the empathy begins. The next step is getting the harried officers to slow down and take as much time as necessary to defuse the situation. They have to forget about the backlog of calls and concentrate.

Mostly, the mentally ill are involved in minor offenses.

“We don’t have any interest in taking them to jail. That’s not what they need. They need profession help. … Putting them in jail is an act of last resort for us. We can usually get the ones in crisis — say if they’ve threatened suicide — to the hospital. We tell them they can leave anytime they want to. That usually works. We try to show them solutions that aren’t nearly as drastic as taking their lives. There is a life ahead, and they can lead a normal life if they get on their medication.”

But not every encounter is a success.

“Frequently, the suicides are those who are fairly young,” Pitts said. “Their life has ended needlessly, and it’s so traumatic to the families. So many times the family says, ‘We took them to the doctor and the doctor gave them medicine, and the medicine didn’t work.”
Pitts’ heart sinks every time he hears this, because he believes the treatment was working.

“When you start going down into depression, you reach a point where you are at acute risk of committing suicide. And then you actually get below that suicide zone. It’s kind of like you’re too depressed to kill yourself. In order to get better, you take the medication, and on the way up you’ve got to come back up through the suicide zone. And that’s where a lot of people don’t make it through. They don’t realize they were on their way to normal.”

The problem of mental illness is like a bad song set indefinitely on repeat. Mental illness is not going away, but residential facilities have.

“We have a huge lack of inpatient care facilities,” Pitts said. “We have the State Hospital in Little Rock with a limited number of beds. They’re working on building another one in Northwest Arkansas, and that’s fabulous. We need more, desperately. … It’s very disheartening to me when both hospitals (Sparks and St. Edward) closed their psych wards. I understand the reasoning behind it. When people suffer from a serious mental illness, they really can’t work and most don’t have insurance, short of Medicaid or Medicare. The funding for paying the medical bills is so limited, there isn’t any money to be made in the mental health care business. And hospitals have to make a certain level of profit, and they lose a lot of money in that department. I can see where they get to the point where they just can’t support that service.”

There is one place where the problem is being addressed — it just isn’t in Arkansas.

“There’s a facility near St. Louis that’s funded by the county, and they do all the psych evaluations and do drug and alcohol treatment,” Pitts said. “It’s been hugely successful for them, and I think it would be wonderful if we had a facility of that nature. Still, it takes a lot of money and resources and a county that has a city like St. Louis in it can generate that. … We don’t have that much of a tax base. We live in a rural state without those huge metropolitan areas that bring in that tax base, and it makes it really difficult for the county, or even the state, to support facilities of that nature.”

And so he continues his work, teaching empathy, and giving officers tools to help them reach out to a segment of society with a heartbreaking set of circumstances.

He recently encountered a man who believed he was a sovereign country and his hotel room was an embassy. There’s always another story to add to the long list recorded by police.

But there are successes, like the woman who suffered from bi-polar disorder and was contemplating suicide. Pitts gave her his card and told her to call if she needed him again. She did, just a few hours later. He spent another three hours talking to her. He’s kept up with her. She has a degree now, and a normal life.

“I think about that,” Pitts said, his hands clasped in front of him on his desk. “I run into her now and then.  She’s never forgotten me.”

Previous articles in the series
• Mental illness hits one in five persons
Robert’s colors and Asperger’s Syndrome
Tonya’s world
• Annette’s adventures in her bipolar world
Married without a wife
• Kent’s constant anxiety
• Jody’s ups and downs