I was at reading the San Francisco Chronicle last Monday morning when I read that man up near Grizzly Peak. The assailant’s name seemed familiar. I reread the paragraph, running my finger down the text on the page. A 23-year-old — exactly the same age as our youngest daughter, Emily.
I stopped reading and looked up into nowhere, dumbfounded as I realized I knew the suspect, Daniel Dewitt, as a young boy. He was in Emily’s class at . I volunteered in their classroom – tying shoelaces, supervising Valentine’s parties, driving on field trips, and helping second graders learn to read. I handed Daniel cupcakes and swept glitter from the indoor/outdoor carpet beneath his plastic-coasted desk.
I just couldn’t make the connection between that little boy and the violent assailant in the article.
That night I watched Daniel’s mother, Candy, interviewed on the KTVU 10 O’clock news with her tall husband’s arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders, pulling her close. She was shaking.
As a parent, my heart shattered for Daniel’s family. As a wife, it broke for the new widow in Berkeley.
At 18, Daniel was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. His mother spent years trying to place him in a permanent care facility, begging judges, prosecutors and victim’s rights advocates for help. But once the meds kicked in and Daniel seemed rational, the hospital would release him and they were back at square one. “It is a system where these people just go in and out, in and out,” she said.
One of my closest childhood friends received the same diagnosis when she was 18. As a schoolgirl, she was bright, freckle-faced, athletic and popular. And I would have given anything to be just like her.
She has been in and out of the hospital and custody for years.
Within the past year, my husband and I have had firsthand experience dealing with two close friends who were taken into custody for 72-hour observations. They call it, “5150” – an involuntary psychiatric hold. In many cases, it’s a revolving door.
With limited financial resources and not a clue as to what was available in terms of mental health services, we did our best to help our friends. We paid the rent on a studio apartment for months to put a roof over one man’s head until we could no longer afford it. Last I heard the Alameda Police Department, after he was released from a 72-hour hold, gave him 24 hours to get off Crown Beach where he was sleeping in the rain.
It’s not just extreme cases like these. I believe the system is broken at every level, even for minor mental health concerns.
A year or two ago I decided to ask my primary care physician for a referral so I could get help with focus, disorganization and procrastination (adult ADHD) to get out of my own way and lead a more productive life. She gave me a list of recommended specialists, but said I had to work through the insurance company.
Typical of attention deficit, it took me months to make myself call. When I finally did call down the list, no one called back.
Weeks later, I made myself call again and managed to set an appointment. A few days before the scheduled date, the doctor’s office called to say they needed to reschedule.
I never rescheduled. That referral list is still in a pile of papers on my desk.
Time passed and gradually I felt overwhelmed by insomnia, the stress of running a small business in an economic downturn, and adult children inhabiting our basement. Two weeks ago I surrendered and once again called the number on the back of my HMO card.
I managed to maneuver through the usual recorded labyrinth (…press one, press two, etc.) and finally, after more than ten minutes, I got a person who gave me a list of seven referrals covered by my plan.
I started placing calls. A few answering machine recordings said they were not taking new patients. Some were too far away. I was left with two clinics in Oakland, so I worked my way through two more voicemail mazes and left messages for both clinics that I wanted an appointment.
To date, no one has returned my call.
Most of us don’t like to ask for help. In my case, my parents didn’t believe in counseling, so it’s hard for me to make the first call, imagining their disapproving faces.
As I told the phone counselor who gave me the referrals, I am not a danger to myself. I am not a danger to anyone around me. I may be cranky, but most days I am relatively sane. If no one ever returns my calls, I will be OK.
I might try again to reach out for help, or I might bury the list of phone numbers back in the pile of paper. And what I really want to say is that if it’s too onerous for someone like me to get the help I need, what hope is there for those like Daniel who have a far more serious diagnosis?
Did he have the capacity to answer, “Yes,” when asked if he was a danger to himself or to others? Was anyone listening when his parents tried to answer for him? And, in the end, would it have made any difference?