By Theresa Flerx
Many in Monroe, Greenbrier and Summers counties remember a family tragedy that occurred on Aug. 6, 2007. That was the day Daniel Flerx shot and killed his 75-year-old father Edward Flerx. Ed was my father, as well. There were so many red flags, crossroads and pitfalls leading up to that horrific event. There were so many opportunities for intervention had it been available to my family, the community and West Virginia taxpayers.
Why do I associate the community and taxpayers with my brother’s mental illness and my family’s tragedy? Because untreated mental illness is not one person, or one family’s, issue. It affects many families, friends, coworkers and even strangers. Numerous repercussions of untreated serious mental illness go unnoticed or ignored because they happen behind closed doors. Oftentimes, a person with a serious mental illness commits misdemeanor disturbances that land him or her in prison rather than a hospital. That is when tax money is wasted for prison cells for a person whose only crime is being ill. Sometimes the worst case scenario happens and someone with a serious mental disorder commits an unthinkable act. Then the news media spends weeks rehashing the same unproductive arguments and solutions over and over again. But those arguments and solutions often center around gun control rather than focusing on the root cause. Sometimes it simply takes timely diagnosis and proper treatment to prevent traumatic events.
The tools to enable this diagnosis and treatment are now at our doorstep, we just have to open that door and invite it in. Representative Tim Murphy is working to provide loved ones with these necessary tools. He is seeking to reform the public mental health care system, but he needs your support for the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 3717).
Some of the proposed tools that will enable a caring family member to assist a loved one during a mental health crisis are:
• Requiring states to authorize assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) in order to receive Community Mental Health Service Block Grant funds.
• Allocating $15 million for a federal assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) block grant program funding up to 50 grants per year for new, local AOT programs.
• Carving out an exemption in HIPAA that permits a “caregiver” to receive protected health information when a mental health care provider reasonably believes disclosure to the caregiver is necessary to protect the health, safety or welfare of the patient or the safety of another. (The definition of “caregiver” includes immediate family members.)
• Establishing a new National Mental Health Policy Laboratory in the Department of Health and Human Services.
• Preventing federally funded “Protection and Advocacy” organizations from engaging in lobbying activities and counseling individuals on “refusing medical treatment or acting against wishes of a caregiver.”
• Requiring the U.S. comptroller general to submit a report to Congress detailing the costs to the federal and state government of imprisoning people with severe mental illness.
• Increasing Congressional oversight of SAMHSA programs and seek improvements to the programs it supports.
One of the first questions asked after a tragic event is, “Why didn’t the mother, father, teacher, health care professional, etc. see this coming?” Well, in most cases he or she could predict the negative effects of psychotic episodes, but were left powerless to stop it.
If the Nelpina Families in Mental Health Crisis Act had been in effect many years ago, Dan could still be living in his cabin, but is now destined to spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric facility. My parents could have spent many more happy years on their farm where relatives often gathered. Now the farm belongs to someone else.
Dan suffered from mental illnesses that went denied, ignored and undiagnosed until he was sent to the mental hospital after murdering Dad. He was finally diagnosed with both Schizophrenia and BiPolar Mood Disorder.
But Dan’s problems were not my family’s first exposure to mental illness. Because of archaic laws, my mother nearly died of self-inflicted starvation before she was properly treated. Many winter nights Dad woke to find Mom gone. He searched the cold neighborhoods to locate her wandering aimlessly in her nightgown.
Dad repeatedly took Mom to the hospital but was turned away because she was “not a danger to herself or others.” Not until the smell of death was emanating from her frail, bony body did a doctor agree to commit her. Medications helped her to live a relatively normal life for 25 years after she was released from the psychiatric facility.
My brother Mark also suffered with undiagnosed mental illness. He made many attempts to find treatment to stop the voices in his head. Mark tried everything from medicines prescribed by a charlatan to drugs he bought off the streets. In 1999, he walked out in front of a car speeding along an interstate. The family will never know for sure if his death was accidental.
Untreated mental illness destroyed my family. The passage of the Families in Mental Health Crisis Act will prevent other families from suffering the same fate as mine. But my family’s tragic experience does not have to be in vain. I will not be content to simply put my family history to rest; I want to become a part of this solution.
I have an associate’s degree in Criminal Justice/Law Enforcement and I am currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. My ultimate goal is for a Doctorate in Forensic Psychology so I can become a tool for the court system. This goal is not a career path, but a mission for my “so called retirement.” I am willing to put years into this effort. Please take a few minutes to join me in supporting this bill. It will save lives.
For more information on the Families in Mental Health Crisis Act and links for additional information concerning mental health issues, please go to http://murphy.house.gov/helping-familiesinmentalhealthcrisisact. Then contact Nick J. Rahall, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, 20515, e-mail to nick.rahall @mail.house.gov or call 202-224-3121 or TTY: 202-225-1904 to show your support for this bill. To contact me, please visit www.tflerxanecdotalist.com.