USC News

Menu Search

Former journalist gets firsthand look at the mental health system

Elyn Saks with Pete Earley, who spoke at the third annual Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics Distinguished Speaker event (Photo/Bill Youngblood)

As a journalist at The Washington Post, Pete Earley has uncovered political corruption, human rights issues and gun trafficking. But when it came to navigating the circuitous mental health system after his son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Earley was at a loss.

“I tried and failed several times to find treatment for my son. I finally realized that if I wanted to save my son, I had to act more like a journalist than a father,” Earley said at the third annual Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics Distinguished Speaker event at the USC Gould School of Law.

During his talk, Earley said he spent years delving into the mental health system, investigating what happens to people with mental illness when they come into contact with law enforcement. The event drew more than 150 law, social work and education students, as well as faculty, friends and dozens of professionals and clients with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Earley documented his exploration — as well as his personal struggles with his son’s illness — in the book Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness (Berkley Trade, 2007).

“My son had a psychotic episode and was arrested after he took a bubble bath in a neighbor’s house,” Earley said. “I was so frustrated. I wanted to help him, and I didn’t know how.”

As he battled on behalf of his son, Earley encountered bureaucratic apathy rather than the help that his son and family desperately sought.

“Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression are illnesses,” Earley said. “They’re not the fault of the person who got them. The heart can get sick and so can the mind.”

In an effort to see what people with mental illness experience in the justice system, Earley persuaded a Miami judge to let him see firsthand how people with mental illness are treated in prison. He followed these individuals through the system and onto the streets, witnessing “the suffering of confinement instead of care, brutal conditions instead of treatment, in the ‘revolving doors’ between hospital and jail,” said Earley, who discovered that jails have essentially become housing institutions for people with mentally illness.

“With mass deinstitutionalization, large numbers of state patients with mental illness are homeless or in jail,” he said. “I wanted to see why our system is failing so many people, and how we could save money and actually help people rather than doing what we’re doing now, which is wasting money and not helping people.”

Earley estimated that nearly 400,000 people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression are in jails and in prison, and another 500,000 are on probation.

“The largest public mental facility is not a hospital; it’s the Los Angeles County Jail,” he said.

Earley noted that the solution is reforming mental health laws and providing people with “meaningful community mental health services” where they can get the help needed to recover.

“We’re spending money anyway,” he said. “Now we’re in a situation where a large percentage of people are ending up in jails and prisons. We’ve turned a health problem into a criminal justice problem. It’s costly, it’s wasteful and it’s morally wrong.

“I support jail diversion programs, mental health courts that help people get into treatment, but we have to expand our thinking,” he added. “We need to start realizing that mental health is a housing issue, a transportation issue, a veterans’ issue, an education issue, a drug and alcohol treatment issue, as well as a criminal justice issue. It’s all these things — we’ve got to start working together.”

The Saks Institute will continue to explore the criminalization of mental illness at its spring symposium on April 11 and 12 at USC Gould.

“I am looking forward to an engaging and scholarly discussion,” said Elyn Saks, director and founder of the Saks Institute. “I am so thrilled that Pete Earley could come to USC to start the discussion on this important topic.”

Former journalist gets firsthand look at the mental health system

Top stories on USC News