“My passcode is Michigan,” my son, 27, said to me today over the phone, in a voice that sounded sedated and unusually quiet.
“Passcode for what?” I asked, trying to discern whether he might be experiencing delusions, a symptom of the bipolar disorder he was diagnosed with years ago.
“Passcode…for the hospital,” came his meek reply.
Then, I remembered. My son’s psychiatric hospital used the names of states as passwords for patients’ families, to protect patient privacy. When we called, we had to ask for our loved one using the secret password. He was back in the hospital, I soon learned, for “suicidal ideation,” as it’s called.
The news of Robin Williams death by suicide ripped through the hearts of not only the world but families like mine struggling with serious mental illness in their families. Williams’ tragic death brings into the headlines the often invisible casualty of our broken mental health care system: suicides.
On Facebook instant messaging tonight, seven mothers, from West Virginia to Kentucky and California, juggling children’s bedtimes, dog walks and dinner preparation, created a humble memorial to the comedian with this simple message: We miss you already, Robin Williams. Suicide, homicide, homelessness and jail can’t be our society’s answers to mental illness. Our families need treatment before tragedy.
Williams had given us such hope and laughter with characters like “Mork,” from show of the 1970s and 1980s, “Mork and Mindy,” uttering the famous nonsense words, “Nanoo Nanoo.”
Suicide is one of our greatest fears for our loved ones. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health and researchers around the globe, our loved ones with serious mental illness experience a greater incidence of suicide.. The statistics are frightening: One in five people with bipolar disorder are estimated to commit suicide. People with schizophrenia and bipolar face as much as a 50% higher risk for suicide.
Everyday, I live with the fear that my son will become a suicide statistic. For that reason, to protect him from the glare of public attention, I am using an ancestral and middle name for my name. I will call my son, “Michigan.” But, indeed, we could be anybody’s neighbors, because the challenges we face are a national phenomenon in our broken mental health care system.
Before my son’s call with his hospital password, “Michigan,” he had called me in the middle of an argument with the staff at the assisted living apartments where he has been living. Because he has been aggressive to my younger son, I had to make the painful decision to not allow him to live at home.
Today, he had been cursing at the staff, complaining that he was deeply depressed and stressed. I had been calling and texting him all day, with no response. We have gone through so many scares. One time, police found him wandering in a cemetery with cut wounds to his arm from a sickle he had found. He denied being suicidal.
“I fell,” he told police.
Police officers held him in jail for brandishing a weapon because he wasn’t admitting to being suicidal, and they feared he wouldn’t be admitted into a hospital for psychiatric care. It doesn’t make sense, but that is our broken mental health care system.
When my son, “Michigan,” called today, I was relieved. He was alive. I had just heard the news of Robin William’s suicide. I had just told my sister I feared my son would take his own life.
I asked, gently: Was he in the hospital because he was thinking of suicide?
“Yeah, I asked to come,” he answered.
“Yeah, but I’m not suicidal. I mean, I was, I guess. They called the police because they thought I was suicidal, but that’s not what I meant when I said all that stuff.”
“I’m glad you’re there and safe.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he answered.
“I hope they can get your medications straightened out to help you feel better.”
“Yeah, will you tell them all that stuff? I’m really tired,” he said.
“Yes, son, I will tell them. I hope you get some rest. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Ok. I love you, mom.”
“I love you, too. Get some sleep.”
We were lucky today.
I will forever be thankful the staff at my son’s assisted living facility recognized the need to hospitalize him today, getting him treatment before tragedy. The lack of effective treatment for my son’s bipolar disorder keeps us living in a constant state of fear, in a day-to-day existence, trying to procure treatment in time to avert tragedy.
Just this past weekend, I introduced my younger son to Robin Williams, watching the ’90s film, “Jack.” Williams played the part of a boy who aged physically at four times the rate of other children and was sad throughout most of the movie. The moment that replayed in my mind all today was when the boy’s teacher asked his classmates and him what they wanted to be when they grew.
Realizing he wouldn’t live that long, Williams’ character answered, “I want to be…alive.”