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The horror that is Arizona’s mental health regime

My mother started to behave erratically in 2020 at the age of 67.

It began with a sudden onset of dyslexia, uncharacteristic irritability, and buying or collecting all manner of things until the things piled up in every space she inhabited. Weighted blankets, specialty crafts, rocks and pinecones and pieces of wood, anything in the grocery store with an orange “REDUCED” sticker. Before long, she maxed out her credit cards and physical space to store the things.

Today, most people carry two or three credit cards. Convenient as they are for commerce, they are also pecuniary automatic weapons featuring ten or twenty thousand-round magazines (“lines of credit”), capable of unleashing a fury of funds in rapid bursts (“swipes”) of hundreds or thousands of dollars with each pull of the trigger. At least automatic weapons come with a safety. Within a few months, my mother accumulated ~$30,000 in non-dischargeable credit card debt. It should be noted that families have no recourse against such profligacy by a loved one in the throes of cognitive decline of any sort. There was no way for us to deactivate her card or reduce her line of credit.

Dan Jones

She became paranoid. She called 911 and told the police that she was being threatened. On their third trip to our home, the police recommended an “involuntary mental health evaluation”.

More than half of people diagnosed with cognitive impairment — including schizophrenia, dementia and bipolar disorder suffer from “Anosognosia,” a word of Greek origin that means “without knowledge of disease”. It describes a person’s inability to perceive that anything is wrong with them. This was certainly my mother’s case. Our concerns about her erratic behavior were met with vehement denial, no matter the evidence provided.

After months of failing to convince her to see a doctor, we were desperate. An involuntary evaluation seemed like the only way to get our mother the help she needed. The bar for triggering such an evaluation is understandably high. The petitioner must demonstrate that the person in question is “a danger to self or others,” “gravely disabled,” or at risk of suffering “severe and abnormal mental, emotional or physical harm” without treatment.

On the morning of my mother’s first involuntary evaluation, she had torn apart the house in a fit of rage and was planning to skip town in her car, which the police had, just two hours earlier, helped us disable by pulling out the ignition spark plug. Officers returned to take her to Community Bridges in Mesa. If you’ve never been to CBI, pray you never have to go. It can best be described as a processing facility for mentally disturbed individuals ranging from the criminally insane to addicts going through withdrawal to elderly citizens suffering from age-related cognitive decline like my mother.

After spending a few sleepless nights among the screaming, hallucinating, terrified souls housed together on lounge chairs with blankets in a windowless room, she was sent to a Valleywise Behavioral Health hospital in Phoenix for further evaluation. For reasons that require more space than I’ve to write, my sweet, model citizen mother went through this hellish process not once, but twice.

Even at Valleywise, we were unable to visit her—a “COVID policy” that, to our great shame as a state, remains in place today, depriving those who need the love and attention of family the most from getting it. Attempts to send her more palatable food were often rejected if contraband such as tinfoil – enough of which can apparently be crafted into a shank of sorts – was discovered in the to-go containers. Approximately once a week, we’d get a vague update from a doctor or social worker.

After a month, she was court-ordered to undergo treatment: the forced consumption of an anti-psychotic drug and periodic telephone appointments with a psychiatrist. By then, she felt betrayed by family and abused by a broken system. She moved into her own apartment to start a new life, but she forgot to update her case manager of her new address, a violation of the court order. So, she was arrested. The police showed up and carried my confused and scared mother down the stairs of her apartment building and into a police SUV while her new neighbors looked on. Apparently, a courtesy call to her family to clear up the address issue prior to sending armed men was too much to ask. She was brought back to CBI for a third stint.

A common next step for people in this situation is to seek conservatorship to protect their loved one and manage their assets. We endeavored to do the same. As is standard in Arizona, she was represented by a court-appointed attorney in the conservatorship hearings. The legal process took several months, and we only discovered afterward that we were required to pay the nearly $17,000 court-appointed attorney bill, in addition to our own attorney’s fees.

Today, our mother is doing much better. As the world has returned to some post-pandemic normalcy, so it seems has our mother’s mental health. Miraculously, we got our mom back, mostly.

But we’re left to wonder what we got for all the money we spent personally and that taxpayers spent on our behalf. What value does the public mental health system provide with a process that is so indelicate, so disorderly, and which requires families to cough up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees for attorneys? I hope that you and your loved ones will never have to endure what we went through. Our system is broken (so much is broken anymore): instead of helping the afflicted and their families who are undergoing tremendous financial and emotional strain, it exacerbates their pain and leaves them shattered. Meanwhile, large corporations that administer these “services” are profiting from its brokenness.

I’ve thought many times what would’ve happened if my family were of lesser means and had to endure a similar financial hardship due to a loved one’s suddenly diminished faculties. The answer seems obvious: she’d be on the street.

It’s time for reform and accountability, and it can’t begin soon enough.

Dan is a native Arizonan, entrepreneur, and brokenist. For more on the story of his mother, click here. 



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