A Broken System

For my wife, Amy Bruce

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by Joe Bruce

CARATUNK, Maine – On June 20, 2006, I opened the door of our simple home here on Main Street in western Maine to find the limp, bloody body of my beautiful wife Amy, my closest friend in the world and the love of my life. In a deep state of psychosis, our then 24-year-old son, William, had killed her with a hatchet, thinking she was an al-Qaeda agent.

Two months earlier, on April 20, 2006, Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, Me., discharged Will, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, three weeks shy of the 90-day involuntary commitment period ordered by our local District Court. Will had a history of violence, but he was released from Riverview without the benefit of any kind of antipsychotic drugs.

The days, months, and years following Amy’s death marked the worst time of my life, but it was also the start of something most unexpected: a journey into openness, emerging most recently this week with a CNN investigation into our family’s story, “If only they had treated him before,” by CNN senior producer Wayne Drash.

What I have learned is that families desperately need help. In the days after the CNN package was published, families have been writing to me from around the country about their struggles getting treatment for loved ones. Our country’s mental health care system is a shipwreck. Untreated mental illness is a national emergency, and, as family members, we are well served by transforming our pain, misery, and grief into positive advocacy, challenging the gross negligence our loved ones with serious mental illness face, sending millions of them out onto the streets, into prison cells and onto the obituary pages.

Local prosecutors charged Will with murder and after a psychiatric evaluation led to a finding that he was not competent to stand trial, Will was, ironically, “remanded” to Riverview to be restored to “competency.” In March 2007, Will was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Riverview indefinitely.

As for me, in the months following Amy’s death, I lost almost 35 pounds, ate very little and was able to sleep no more than a few hours a day. By October, instead of returning to any kind of normal life, I was falling apart and shortly after that began treatment for severe PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Still, I had important choices to make the day after Will killed Amy. My family had gathered at my parents’ home in South Portland, Me., trying to deal with the shock of Amy’s death, when I got a call from David Hench, a reporter from the Portland Press Herald with the affectionate Twitter handle, “MaineHenchman.”

He apologized for intruding and asked if he could speak to me. He told me that a family friend, Erica DiSilvestro, had given him my number. Erica, who sadly lost her life to cancer recently, was a dear friend of Amy’s and a warm and deeply caring person. I thought to myself, if Erica was okay with David Hench, then I’d give him a chance.

And at that moment, I decided people needed to know what happened to the Bruce family.

“Yes,” I said, and thus began my family’s journey into an honest, public conversation about a very private tragedy.

Amy’s death was completely preventable. I decided to open the door to our story so people could see and understand what went wrong in our country’s broken mental health care system and find solutions. David wrote a brief article that came out the next day and then interviewed me for almost five hours for a longer piece in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

When the full story came out that Sunday I received a call from Rev. Doug Drown, the minister from Amy’s church in Bingham, Me.

He told me, “Joe, you have done a very good thing for the mentally ill and for the community.”

I received calls from family members with loved ones with mental illness, thanking me as well. They prefaced their conversation by telling me, “I’ve never talked to anyone about this before…” and they then told me about a relative with a mental illness. They ended similarly, saying: “Thank you for speaking out.”

The next year, I obtained Will’s medical records from Riverview. Nothing could have prepared me for what I found in the doctors’ notes. Federally-funded “patient rights” advocates had interfered with Will’s treatment and pressured the hospital into releasing him untreated.

We absolutely have to protect patients from the institutional abuse and neglect that has been occurred in the mental health system over the years, but in recent decades newly-empowered “patient rights advocate” groups have gone too far in pursuing an agenda of “mad pride” and “mad rights,” or the “right” to be mentally ill. This is one thing when a person is still functional, but it is another when someone is unable to make the positive decisions they need to have a successful life, when they are unable to manage even the basic necessities of independent living and expecially when, like my son is, they are literally murderous while in psychosis.

In April 2007, I presented the Maine legislature with this information and, along with other family members from throughout the state, successfully lobbied to change Maine’s privacy laws to make it easier for families to receive medical information from caregivers. Family members and I were also successful in lobbying to improve Maine’s “medication over objection” law that year.

That spring, following the tragic Virginia Tech massacre by a young man with mental illness not treated, CNN investigative reporter Randy Kaye called about filming an interview in our home for “Anderson Cooper 360.” I agreed. The story: “The killers in our midst.” In the summer, Rob Howell, a CNN producer, came to Caratunk to film a more in-depth piece for “CNN Presents.”

Later that summer, Nathan Koppel and Elizabeth Bernstein, reporters at the Wall Street Journal called me. I handed them Will’s hospital records and our family’s personal photos, and they spent a year investigating the role of the “patient advocates” program, publishing a page one story in August 2008, “A Death in the Family.”

That year and the next year, other Maine family members and I successfully lobbied to make Maine the 44th state to enact an “assisted outpatient treatment law,” called “Kendra’s Law” in New York and “Laura’s Law” in California, allowing court-ordered treatment for our loved ones with serious mental illness. As a Sacramento Bee editorial recently argued, supporting “Laura’s Law,” court-ordered treatment is not our last resort. Homicide or suicide is.

Last year, following the December 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., a House subcommittee chaired by Rep. Tim Murphy (R., Pa.) invited me testify in an investigation of the federal mental health system. As a result of a series of these investigative hearings, Rep. Murphy introduced the most significant piece of mental health legislation in over 50 years, “The Helping Families in Mental health Crisis Act”.

If the legislation had been in place when Will got sick years ago, I might still have Amy with me.

Most recently, earlier this year CNN senior producer Wayne Drash contacted me about chronicling our Bruce family story. When he asked how Will was doing, I told him that, after seven years of clinical treament at Riverview, Will was preparing to leave the hospital and move into a group home. The Riverview staff, no longer under pressure from patient advocates to discharge Will, had been able to give Will proper and excellent treatment.

This past spring, Wayne and I visited Will in Augusta in his new group home, and Wayne made two more trips to Maine. In his most recent trip, something extraordinary happened. A mother I had met advocating for reforms in Maine, Jeanne Mirisola, sat at my kitchen table with one of Amy’s best friends, a nurse. We set my phone on speaker mode and heard the voices of mothers from Orange County, Ca., to Lexington, Ky., with whom I’d been talking for 17 months.

In Great Falls, Va., Asra Nomani, a journalist who had interviewed me for a Washington Post opinion piece about her family’s experience with mental illness treatment, signed a document to incorporate a new organization we had worked on creating since January 2013: Treatment Before Tragedy, a nonprofit advocating for our loved ones with serious mental illness. Our hashtag: #Tb4T.

We seek to reform the mental health system by bringing serious mental illness out from behind closed doors. As one of our mothers, Teresa Pasquini, in Contra Costa County, Ca., says, “We are shattering shame.”

Due to the horrific tragedies that have pocketed our country from Virginia Tech to Aurora, Co., America’s broken mental health system has finally become a hot button issue. In Washington, Rep. Murphy has done something truly outstanding. Recognizing that our mental health system is a national disgrace, Murphy’s legislation rebuilds the mental health system from the bottom, redirecting dollars into police crisis intervention training, to the top, creating a new secretary for mental health and substance abuse.

We encourage families to write their representatives to support the legislation, through online advocacy tools at our website.

Perhaps the tragic death of Robin Williams will open the door even further so people may finally begin to understand how serious mental illness breaks into homes and steals the most valuable thing people can ever have: their happiness. This poor man with everything going for him, including a brilliant mind and marvelous career, wasn’t able to defend himself against the sirens’ song of deep depression. Perhaps his death will make people understand that despite the noble idealism of “individual rights,” the hard realities of serious mental illness often warrant action by good people to get treatment for others for reasons of compassion and the greater good.

“The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” offers a comprehensive working model rooted in evidence-based practices and cutting edge science to provide compassionate care and treatment to those with serious mentally illness. It is legislation designed to move the most seriously mentally ill to the head of the treatment line, and to bring relief to the families that love them.

Before she died, Amy had written a note to Will. In it, she wrote, “I love you more than life itself.”

We don’t need any other mothers sacrificing their lives so their children get treatment. We need treatment before tragedy.


Joe Bruce lives in Caratunk, Me., and can be reached at jbruce@treatmentbeforetragedy.org.


3 replies »

  1. The mental health system has been broken for forty years, and what it had to offer previously wasn’t anything to brag about, either — though it did keep people relatively safe. My parents were mental health professionals; my mother, in her latter years, had much to say about what a disaster the system had become. “Mental illness” is, obviously, an umbrella term that covers a wide range of conditions. All of them deserve better advocacy, and families need to be deeply involved. Thank you, Joe, for this superb essay and for all the work you’ve done. – Doug Drown (Joe’s friend and Amy’s former minister)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I was raised in Essex, Mass. As with every family back then, in a small town, everyone knew everyone. I was heart broken to find out this happened one year after we suffered the same loss. I now live in Ohio, but when I think of Aunt Christie Minnix, I also think of Amy and the Bruce family. Thank you for being so active. Sending prayers and strength.


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