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Living with mental illness brings host of issues

Posted: 8:56 PM, Dec 11, 2015
Updated: 2015-12-11 20:56:40-05

Morgan Frank doesn't smile much. Her happiest moments are spent with her horse "Boo" at Rolling Thunder stables in Minerva. Riding and taking care of the rescue horse has turned into a therapeutic outlet for this 10 year old who was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. It's also a blessing for her parents who have lost nearly everything in their struggle to find answers for their youngest daughter.

Their long road began when Morgan was a toddler. Danielle Frank remembers that her daughter was always looking off into the distance, giving her attention to something that wasn't there. "There were times she wouldn't sleep for days on end, other days when she wouldn't wake up," said Danielle. Textures bothered Morgan, she'd pick holes in her legs and arms. She'd cry that fabric was burning her arms and legs.

Visits to the doctor didn't help, with one doctor blaming Danielle for being a working mom. She recalls he said, "This is every working mom's doing. You guys feel bad because you're away a lot, you buy them everything they want and you've created the madness. She's your typical spoiled brat." Another doctor blamed sugar. 

Meanwhile Morgan's bizarre behavior drove the family further into isolation as they avoided family gatherings and public outings. Danielle said, "We would just keep making excuses. They're tired or we're tired. They're sick, we can't come."

Finally Morgan was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and given strong medications to treat it. But it was the wrong diagnosis. Things came to a head when Morgan tried to push her older sister Madison out a window, and came after the family pets with a knife. The Franks took her to Aultman Children's where she was admitted to the psychiatric facility. There, after years of getting no answers - or the wrong answers - Morgan was finally diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. She spent some time in the psychiatric facility there while the family figured out what to do. Morgan needed 24/7 care.

So Danielle quit her job as office manager in a medical practice to focus on helping her daughter. And in the years since, the catastrophic costs for Morgan's medications and limits on health insurance coverage have bankrupted the family. They've lost their home, cars, and sold most of their possessions to keep going. "We had a retirement fund, savings. They were depleted faster than we could ever have known," she said.

There have been other costs. While waiting at an outpatient lab facility, Morgan had what Danielle described as a "complete meltdown." A woman in the waiting room said to me, 'You have to be the worst person on earth. Someone should call the police on this mother.'" 

Morgan's sister Madison has her own issues - anxiety and depression among them, and fears related to what may lie ahead for the family. And each time there is another mass shooting, followed by the accompanying analysis and speculation related to mental illness, it heightens Morgan's anxieties. After the terrible theater shooting in Colorado, Danielle said Morgan came to her and asked "Am I going to do that? Is that going to happen to me?"

Their story is not unique. Families faced with caring for a loved one with mental illness often find their options are limited. And that's when the person with mental illness is fortunate enough to have a loving family. 

Dr. Ewald Horwath at MetroHealth Medical Center said that - as a country - we are falling far short of what we need to do. "There's a huge proportion of people who have serious mental illness who are never diagnosed, or if they are - they can't access treatment." 

According to recent numbers from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), approximately 60 percent of adults with mental illness and almost 50 percent of teens with it received no mental health services in the previous year. Given that more than 13 million American adults live with a serious mental illness, that is a staggering number.

Vast numbers of people with mental illness are either on the street, or end up in our prisons, too often getting no treatment for their illness. Dr. Horwath noted that in the late 1950s, roughly 500,000 people were in state psychiatric hospitals. Today, he said, less than 10 percent of that number are in hospital settings, and between 400,000 to 500,000 people with severe mental illness are now in prisons and jails. 

When someone needing psychiatric care comes into local emergency rooms, there is often nowhere for them to go. "Sometimes they have to wait for days. Today is a great example. Here in Cleveland, there are no beds available (for psychiatric patients)," said Horwath.

Dr. Horwath said more resources must be put into training mental health professionals and making inpatient and outpatient services more available, noting that the cost for a patient receiving actual treatment for their illness is a fraction of the cost for imprisonment and not treating the illness.

The Frank family is among many who are paying a very high price for the state of our country's mental health care system. And Danielle Frank is doing what she can to bring more attention to this. "I'm not smart enough to make a cure. But I'm loud. And I want their lives to be everything they want them to be."

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