Joe Bruce, a retired Department of Transportation worker, might tell you that the worst day of his life was when he came home from work in June 2006 and found his wife, Amy, dead in the shower of the family’s home in Caratunk. She had been killed with a hatchet.
Surely it doesn’t get much worse.
But, in truth, he also might have to pause and consider the days and weeks and years that he and Amy spent in fear of that happening. All that time, they had worried whether they were safe from their son and whether he was safe from himself.
Those were pretty horrific days as well.
They knew the risk every night when they went to bed with their son in the house. They sought help from every service and venue they could and found none.
They tried to save their deeply disturbed son, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, as well as themselves, but were pitted against a concrete wall of bureaucracy they never could get beyond.
By the time he was at his sickest, their son was a young adult and “protected” from any intervention from his parents.
They had no say in his treatment, no rights to his medical records and were accused of trying to keep their son committed against his will.
“We knew that Will was so deep into his illness that he no longer knew he was sick, no longer knew he needed treatment. Those advocating for him were of the mindset that he was the best person to determine his treatment options. Of course that wasn’t true. He was essentially denied treatment because of laws and policies that are so one-sided they make no sense … policies that dictate that the most severely mentally ill patients have complete authority over their care, even though it is clear that they are not able to make those decisions,” Bruce said.
And so it was that Will was released from Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta and returned home to his parents.
Bruce went to his state job each day, called home several times a day to check on Amy’s well-being, and tried to navigate his way through the uneasy situation they were in, including their son’s habit of collecting and hiding knives and ranting to himself in the driveway.
Three months after his release, Will killed his mother with a hatchet and left her body in the shower.
He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and is now committed at Riverview.
With a great deal of effort to get past the red tape, Bruce was able to become Will’s legal guardian. He now has access to his son’s medical records and to his doctors. Father and son spend a great deal of time together and with proper medication and treatment Will is doing well at the Augusta hospital, where he has earned an increasing number of privileges, according to his father.
Since Amy’s death, Bruce retired from his DOT job and found himself in the position of advocating for better mental health services, especially focusing on the rights of the loved ones of those receiving services.
Last year he testified at hearings conducted by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., to investigate the psychiatric aspects of the mass killings at now-infamous places such as Newtown, Conn.; Littleton, Colo.; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Virginia Tech.
Bruce notes that while the shootings probably had more to do with untreated mental illness than gun control, the national discussion didn’t reflect that.
In December, and as a result of those hearings, Murphy, a psychologist, introduced the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.
The bill would create a new assistant secretary for mental health and substance use disorders, redirecting authority from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It also would clarify the type of information providers can share with families through the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act, meaning doctors would have greater flexibility in sharing information with family members and caregivers of the most seriously mentally ill patients.
The act also would provide funds for research; address the shortage of mental health care providers, especially for children; and focus money and research on the most seriously ill.
“This bill is a chance for real relief for the millions of families that are dealing with a loved one with very serious mental illness,” Bruce said this week. “It addresses hundreds of millions of dollars in wasteful spending and redirects that money into areas that can actually make a difference to these people with severe mental illness.
“Those with the most serious mental illness have been denied treatment basically because of the severity of their illness and their family’s inability to have any input. My son was one of those cases. This bill would have offered my family some relief had its provisions been in place and it offers, for the first time in a long time, some hope to those families still dealing with this,” he said.
Bruce plugs along with his days, making the trek from Caratunk to Augusta to spend time with his son. He’s grateful each day for the care Will receives at the Riverview Psychiatric Center and mingles regularly with the same people who advocated for his son’s release back in 2006.
“This tragedy, our tragedy, was not any single person’s fault, it was a fault with the entire system, and this bill, for the first time, makes some headway and will give families some hope and sense of control and safety. It’s a big bill. It’s a big problem and we need to get behind it,” Bruce said.
You can reach Renee Ordway at firstname.lastname@example.org.