For 26 years, Pete Earley has made his living writing about prison life and gruesome murders, turncoats and spies. He's won numerous awards. But it wasn't until the onset of his son's bipolar disorder that the award-winning journalist and author found his passion.
Earley writes in his bestselling book, Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, that his son, Mike, first suffered a psychotic snap while a senior in college.
Earley began immediately to seek help, but with little success. And Mike was eventually arrested for breaking and entering after taking a bubble bath in a stranger's house. He was convicted and sentenced to two years' probation.
"You have people who are in a psychosis, who believe, say, that God is talking to them," Earley tells the Independent, "but you have to wait to do anything until they do something dangerous, like break into a house. And then they get arrested, and that's the vicious cycle we're in."
On March 28, Earley will bring his story here, as part of a program hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Colorado College.
Since his book was first published in 2006 — making him a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction — Earley has become an ardent advocate for the mentally ill. He has met with advocates in nearly every state, and what he has found isn't encouraging.
Due to a lack of medical care, housing and other services, and laws that allow for intervention only when someone becomes dangerous, this population is routinely forced onto the streets, and then behind bars. A 2010 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association found that 16 percent of inmates suffer from a serious mental illness. Jails and prisons hold three times more people suffering from mental illness than hospitals.
In Colorado, according to this study, there's a 4-to-1 chance that a seriously mentally ill person will be put in jail. It could be worse; in North Dakota, it's 1-to-1, and in Massachusetts, 1.2-to-1.
"Translate that to a heart problem," Earley says. "If you had a 4-to-1 chance that you would wind up in jail rather than a hospital, people would be outraged. But when it comes to mental health, people don't see that distinction."
The stigma of mental illness is just too great, he says.
"We are afraid of them. We don't have a whole lot of sympathy for them. You look at them as bums, lazy, alcoholics or drug addicts. But it's much more complicated than that."
Lori Jarvis, executive director of the local NAMI affiliate, says that Earley's path to advocacy is common.
"That's how most of us come to NAMI," she says, "because we've had a family member who struggled with mental illness."
NAMI's flagship program, Family-to-Family, is a 12-week class that helps people understand what their family member is going through, and how to advocate, she says. It's one of a number of available local programs.
And while there are other caregivers in the community, such as AspenPointe and Peak Vista, the amount of care available for psychiatric patients in El Paso County — particularly for those who are uninsured and under-insured — is limited. For instance, spokesman Kevin Porter says AspenPointe receives state funding to treat only 879 uninsured mental-health patients each year; his organization scrambles to serve 3,000 to 4,000.
Says Earley: "We make it more complicated than what it is. What does a person with mental illness want? That person wants what you and I want: a safe place to live, a purpose in life, and someone to love them. It's really that simple."