Bipolar Disorder: A Treatable Mental Illness



As we all know, anyone can have a bad day, certainly a bad moment. And everyone acts out of character now and then. Generally, it’s no cause for alarm, but for those who suffer from bipolar disorder, an out-of-character moment can herald the onset of disaster. My son suffered from bipolar. His name was Scott. 

            At age 27, without warning, Scotty’s behavior became absolutely weird, psychotic, completely out-of-control. He drove his car like a maniac at high rates of speed with no regard for the safety of other drivers who might get in his way…he was wired…high-strung…almost obnoxious to be around. His sleep pattern changed…he required little to no sleep…yet he never showed signs of fatigue…he never sat still…he talked nonstop about all his many grandiose ideas. He claimed he had a personal relationship with President Clinton. He was in the Witness Protection Program…he was a Prophet of God…federal agents were trying to assassinate him because he was in possession of top secret information that would take down important people in the government if he went public.

There were days when Scotty actually believed he was the President of the United States, living in the White House. He was in complete denial that anything was wrong with him. Scotty was diagnosed has having bipolar disorder and involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for six weeks where with treatment and forced medications, he recovered and was able to resume his life. 

            Bipolar disorder is defined as a complex medical illness of the brain involving episodes of serious mania and depression. Genetic factors may create a predisposition in some people, and life stresses may trigger the onset of symptoms. Over 10 million people in this country have bipolar disorder, and the illness affects men and women equally, regardless of age, sex, race, color, creed, education, income or social status. It’s a lifelong illness with recurring episodes. There is currently no cure…but the good news is…bipolar is a treatable illness.

            Like many who have bipolar disorder, Scotty was not only a highly intelligent person, he had a family who loved him, supported him in his recovery, and advocated for him. Despite the extraordinary and loving efforts of his family over 13 years, Scotty’s bipolar ruined his life; his downward course was aided by a completely ineffective legal system that continually protected his right to be severely mentally ill.

            The laws in most states make it extraordinarily difficult for family members to get treatment for their loved ones who have become overcome by severe mental illness. Once you reach age 18, you have a civil right to refuse treatment and remain mentally ill until you become suicidal or homicidal.

            In the way of background on how we got to where we are in this country with our involuntary commitment laws, there was a time, back in the mid-1950’s, when families could commit mentally ill relatives to “mental institutions” as they were called, for forced treatment. Unfortunately, some of these facilities became dumping grounds not only for the mentally ill, but also for people with physical disabilities and elderly people whose families no longer wished to care for them. Some of these patients were badly mistreated by the staff and forgotten by their families. When it became public knowledge that such deployable conditions existed, there was, of course, a public outcry to close these institutions, and states began passing laws to make it illegal to force treatment or medications on mentally ill people.

            While I applaud the efforts to close those state-run asylums, lawmakers failed to consider people like my son. If you don’t understand you’re sick, how can you make rational decisions regarding your treatment. You can’t. It’s the families of mentally ill people who are the first to recognize that their loved ones are ill, but the laws in most states render them helpless until the individual becomes suicidal or homicidal.

            When we deinstitutionalized, we merely shifted the mentally ill elsewhere. In essence, we now institutionalize them in our jails and prisons in a correctional setting. There are hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people incarcerated, who for the most part are being untreated.

            Untreated bipolar disorder took my son on a 13-year roller coaster ride. It destroyed two marriages, his career, and ultimately his life…all this in the name of protecting his civil right to remain mentally ill and refuse treatment. He was incarcerated, tazered while resisting arrest, and began talking about exercising his constitutional right to bear arms to protect himself from federal agents he felt certain were trying to assassinate him.

Judges are commitment hearings, in their infinite wisdom, released Scotty time and time again and allowed him to walk out of the hospital…at which point he was off and running again. Allowing him to roam the country in his untreated psychotic bipolar world under the pretense of protecting his civil rights is, in my opinion, absurd and a disservice to him. Scotty had a civil right to receive treatment even though his illness precluded his ability to recognize he was ill. And, I might add, the general public also has a civil right to be protected from potentially dangerous mentally ill individuals who are either off their meds or they are not being treated at all. My family and I are so very grateful that Scotty never hurt anyone.

The system on one hand allows mentally ill people to go untreated; on the other hand, it sometimes unleashes horror. We had the recent tragic shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora which appears, from all accounts, to be an example of untreated mental illness. Prior to that…the shooting in Tucson where a member of Congress was shot and seriously injured…also untreated mental illness. You can pick up the newspaper almost any day of the week and frequently read about yet another tragedy involving untreated mental illness, not just those tragedies making national news, but local tragedies as well.

Scotty had five major, prolonged bipolar manic episodes, each one more severe than the previous…and of a longer duration. He was committed 14 times to 11 different hospitals in five different states. With each episode, his family literally put our lives on hold for weeks on end, tracking Scotty and trying to get him treated.

Normal life for a bipolar family just does not exist when their loved one stops taking their meds. I don’t know why Scotty would stop taking his meds…he just did. I’m not even sure he knew why. He, at times, lacked insight, and he used poor judgment. When this happened, the map for his recovery was full of dead ends and wrong turns, and both he and his family suffered the consequences.

            I’ve become an advocate for family involvement in decisions about treatment. What happened to my son, and sadly, continues to happen to other people like him, just should not happen in this country. I feel strong that the right to live supersedes the right to not be involuntarily treated for mental illness. Those who are suicidal when ill, but want to live when well should have the safety net of a family member, a person to decide to give them the chance to return to their lives and be well. Medication compliance is the key to living with bipolar disorder or any mental illness.

            There are, of course, people who oppose my view on forced treatment and feel that people suffering from severe mental illnesses should be allowed to exercise their choices on treatment. While this makes sense for people who are well enough to make those choices, ignoring the obvious segment of people like my son with severe and persistent mental illness, who lack insight to make those decisions, is a mistake. To those people who oppose forced treatment, I would say…they have not walked in my family’s shoes for 13 years…they have not lost a brother or son to untreated illness.

Dottie Pacharis, Author, Mind on the Run: A Bipolar Chronicle