(WASHINGTON) -- The father of a young man whose battle with mental illness ended in suicide told a bipartisan group of Congress members Tuesday about the sometimes nightmarish struggles he faced trying to help his son.
“I can’t tell you the horror it is to have a child, behind you, going down an interstate highway, trying to get him to the place to save him and he tells you, ‘If you stop the car, I’ll jump out and kill myself with these trucks behind us,’” Pat Milam said, recounting the trauma of care for his young adult son, who had swallowed a bottle of pills in one of several attempts to commit suicide.
That attempt was ultimately unsuccessful. But at the age of 24, Matthew Milam would take his own life, a mere eight days after being discharged from a psychiatric ward where he was treated for bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.
He used a makeshift explosive device on that final attempt. Police had previously told his father they could not charge Matthew with a crime after he had alerted them to finding materials to construct pipe bombs in his room at home.
Milam was one of three parents who appeared at a mental health and violence forum discussion Tuesday on Capitol Hill that was hosted by the oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The body called the meeting due to its bearing over the private health industry.
The event Tuesday is the latest such panel to be formed as the nation calls for investigations into the causes of a series of mass shootings in recent years.
The guests blamed what they perceived as a failed American mental health system for their family’s ordeals, and in the case of Milam, death.
Pete Earley, whose own adult son had been successfully treated for illness, said vigorous and constant outpatient service was required.
“We need to change the commitment process,” he said. “But we can’t just change that if you don’t back it up with services. Because there’s no place to go.”
According to the Child Mind Institute, 15 million Americans under the age of 24 suffer from a mental disability, but there are only approximately 7,500 certified child psychiatrists.
A national stigma surrounding mental illness, combined with costs, weak health insurance coverage, and a bureaucratic maze of state and local guidelines have resulted in the average patient requiring two years to be identified and seek treatment according to the institute.
Earley, a former Washington Post reporter, documented his son’s case in his book, Crazy. He told the panel a turning point came when the family found a dedicated case worker, who helped the young man adjust into independent living with two roommates also undergoing treatment.
“That took a tremendous job off of me,” Earley said. “I could be the parent.”
Earley’s son is now employed in the state of Virginia as a “peer-to-peer” support specialist, helping incarcerated individuals with mental illness overcome their disability.
“Most people with mental illnesses can get better. You got to give them hope. You’ve got to give them the tools to do it,” he said.
The panel was also joined by Liza Long, whose blog about her own trials with a violently mentally ill 13-year-old went viral after the December shooting deaths of 20 Connecticut first graders and six adults. “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” was named for the gunman.
Long, who said her son is currently taking a “cornucopia of drugs” to control his rage, says sometimes parents’ only safe option is to have their children charged with a crime.
“We live in fear of the future,” she said. “What will happen when my son turns 18? Will my son harm himself or others? How will I pay for all the services I need to keep my child functioning?”
The mother asked for increased funding for the school counselors, research, and consistent community resources. In addition, she asked the lawmakers to consider an expanded budget for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Representative Timothy Murphy, D-Pa., led the forum. In his closing remarks he told the assembled experts and lawmakers that while the discussion helped members, “understand the fears, the worries, the love, the frustration,” of the issue at hand, the general welfare of the country demanded a thoughtful and deliberate way forward.
“I want to make sure we don’t do some knee-jerk reactions and think because we did something, we did the right thing,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is lull ourselves into some state of sleep, and say, ‘Well, we took care of mental illness so we’re done for the next decade.’”
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