‘They are all our children’

Local mother shares her not-so-uncommon experience of having a mentally ill child

Behavioral-crisis resources:
Go to www.tinyurl.com/crisisserv for more information on crisis services offered by Butte County Behavioral Health.

Shortly after Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and seven adults, including his mother, in Newtown, Conn., late last year, a woman from Boise, Idaho, named Liza Long wrote about her own struggles with her mentally ill 13-year-old son, Michael (not his real name), in an article in The Blue Review titled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”

Long wrote that Michael, an extremely bright seventh-grader, began “exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behavior in school.” While Long sought a diagnosis and treatment for her son, his behavior became worse. He threatened to kill her, and himself, with a knife. Long had to wrestle the knife away from Michael while her two younger children scampered to the safety of a locked car.

On another day and after more verbal threats, Long drove her son to the local “mental hospital,” as she termed it, and had him committed. Shaking and crying, she wrote on the intake forms, “I need help.”

“This problem is too big for me to handle on my own,” Long wrote in her article. “Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.”

Longtime Chico resident and mother of three Paula Scholtes has felt the same overwhelming emotions and faced the same horrible dilemma as Long. When her daughter, Sarah (not her real name), was about the same age as Long’s Michael, she began obsessively tearing apart books, papers and just about anything else that caught her eye. Once she spent three days tearing apart a sleeping bag.

More disturbing was the aggressive behavior Sarah began exhibiting toward other students at school, shoving and hitting them with her backpack for no apparent reason.

Soon she began hallucinating—she saw people floating in the air around her and coming out of pictures. After an EEG and an MRI ruled out physical causes, Sarah was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder. And about 10 percent of those children are diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“She wasn’t a genius like [Adam Lanza and Michael]; she had always attended special day classes, but she was a really sweet girl who loved to dance and sing.” Scholtes said. “We were hoping that there was something physically wrong.”

Then in January 2012, Scholtes was dropping Sarah off at school and Sarah ran into traffic. Scholtes wrestled with her daughter in the street and screamed for help. Another parent and the school principal helped drag Sarah out of the street. The principal, aware of the problems that Sarah was having, said to Scholtes, “It’s time.”

After 10 hours of filling out forms and going through the intake process at Enloe Medical Center and then at Butte County Behavioral Health’s Crisis Stabilization Unit on Cohasset Road, Sarah was driven by crisis-unit staff to Sacramento and committed to Sutter Health’s inpatient psychiatric facility for children and adolescents, one of the closest facilities to Chico. Over the next six months, Sarah was committed another five times—three more times in Sacramento and twice to a facility in San Rafael, in Marin County.

“As a parent, I felt like I failed her,” said Scholtes, wiping away tears.

Sarah, now almost 16 years old, is currently taking five different medications that help stabilize her moods and hallucinations, but there are still times when she has tried to choke her mother, and once she threatened her with scissors. Other times she’ll wander off from home without being noticed, and a couple of times has even stripped off her clothes in public.

Scholtes wishes there were a psychiatric hospital in—or at least closer to—Chico. “I want to be in Sarah’s life, but I want her to be someplace where she is safe,” she said. “Watching my child be driven away … that’s the hardest part. Parents need to be close to their kids.”

But inpatient psychiatric hospitals are extremely expensive, according to Scott Kennelly of Butte County Behavioral Health, and there are not enough children that need the service in Butte County to merit one at this point. Last year, the Crisis Stabilization Unit saw 115 kids in crisis, 29 of whom were hospitalized. But, “we are open to working with other counties in the region and building a regional hospital,” said Kennelly.

Instead, local nonprofit organization Youth for Change, in collaboration with Behavioral Health’s Crisis Stabilization Unit, runs the Hospital Alternative Program (HAP), “a short-term intensive service for youth [through age 17] at risk of hospitalization,” as it is described at ButteCounty.net, which focuses on providing crisis-management services in the home.

“We try to avoid hospitalizing children,” Kennelly said. “HAP has been very successful.”

When President Obama visited Newtown after the shooting, he said, “We come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.”

Scholtes has come to accept Sarah’s illness: “It was tough at first, but now I know I can handle it.

“I couldn’t have done it without a lot of help,” she added.