Sonia Ramirez knew her son needed help.
He told her he had worms in his stomach.
She took him to the hospital, but they were soon sent home after a drug test came back clean.
She took him to a psychiatrist, who simply said her son needed to play sports – the 19-year-old had been playing baseball since he was 8.
Finally, Ramirez’s sister brought him to the Urgent Psychiatric Care Center on Seventh Avenue. He was released a day later.
And on July 14, less than a month after that short stay, he shot his sister multiple times. She was 15 when she died.
“I lost two kids that day,” Ramirez said.
She told her story during a public hearing last week on how best to use open space at the 93-acre Arizona State Hospital, a project dubbed the Center for Psychiatric Excellence.
In May, Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law legislation allowing private companies to lease space on the hospital grounds to provide emergency and long-term psychiatric and behavioral health services. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, possible uses include urgent psychiatric services, a residential treatment center, a freestanding psychiatric emergency room and other pediatric and adolescent services.
Ramirez joined a chorus of parents and behavioral health experts who identified gaps in the system meant to serve the severely mentally ill.
But the chance to provide input did little to ease concerns of some advocates that the center would truly be used to meet the community’s needs.
Debora Geesling is a mother to a 25-year-old son with mental illness. She said her family learned to lock their doors at night while they slept to protect themselves from her son, and even put up barricades to provide extra protection, yet getting him treatment was like “moving a mountain.”
Her story, and numerous others, illustrated the need for expanded services, but after the hearing, Geesling said she wasn’t confident their voices were heard.
Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said in a blog post she published before the meeting that families of people with serious mental illness are concerned that long-term care facilities will take a backseat to more profitable parties interested in developing the center.
“And Arizona’s seriously mentally ill will continue to cycle through our emergency rooms, the streets and eventually, institutionalized in our prisons at a higher cost to everyone,” she wrote.
Dick Dunseath’s son has been through “about every program imaginable” in the past 22 years, and he said he has found “most providers don’t want the challenging cases” like him.
The Arizona State Hospital is able to provide the continuous care they need, Dunseath said, but the facility is currently limited to just 55 beds for that purpose.
“In what other areas of medicine do we limit treatment to the most severely afflicted to 55 beds?” he asked the room. “Would we do that for people with severe heart problems? Fifty-five beds – the rest of you, do the best you can. Would we do that for cancer patients? No, of course we wouldn’t.”
Cheri Van Sant said her 41-year-old son is only doing well right now because she has the time and resources to “fight like crazy to get him care in this state.”
But she said 21 years of “utter hell” came long before the relative peace her family enjoys now. If the state hospital could only increase the number of available long-term beds, she said, patients like her son may have a chance to face their illness sooner.
“If you don’t give one hoot about whether our loved ones get better or can live a semi-functional life, if you’re only looking at money, this is going to save the state of Arizona,” she said.
Ramirez said she never had the chance to get as far into treatment with her son as others like Van Sant did – even if others saw only marginal results over long periods of time.
“Now, he sits at the Fourth Avenue Jail, probably going to get the death penalty, and he’s sitting there left untreated because I didn’t know,” she said. “Now, it’s too late.”