Many of our state leaders, including our governor, are suggesting that much of the blame of the tragedy at Robb Elementary in Ulvalde is due to a level of mental illness in the shooter. I have no problem with that suggestion, but they further seem to believe that the real solution to the problem is not to limit gun rights, but to make efforts to help those with mental problems before they take their anger out in a wave of violence. I’d agree with them if I actually thought that they were sincere in their intent to make counseling and psychiatric services readily available to anyone who needs them in the state of Texas. Sadly, my almost five decades of navigating the mental health system with my mother tells me that all of their talk is hollow.
My mom first became seriously ill with bipolar disorder in nineteen sixty-nine. I was able to get her some help but I had little idea that her condition would recur in cycles like the four seasons for the rest of her life. Since I was not satisfied with her first doctor I found someone new when her symptoms disappointingly resurfaced not long after her initial breakdown. Her journey with bipolar disorder would become never ending and frustrating.
By the time she was in her seventies she had been dealing with the effects of her illness for over thirty years. She was mostly a noncompliant patient and the doctor who had worked with her during that time had also grown old and no longer had the patience to deal with her sporadic willingness to follow his guidelines. She was in the throes of one of her most dangerously psychotic episodes and I was desperate to find a doctor willing to treat her. I literally spent and entire week of eight hour days calling person after person and being rejected for one reason or another. One time the insurance was not acceptable. Another time only cash would work. Some only cared for adolescents. Others had full practices. I was at my wits end to find someone when I made a call to yet another psychiatrist that someone had recommended.
He was a kindly fellow who listened intently to my anxious pleas. He admitted that his practice was closed and that he was in semi-retirement. He changed the subject and asked how I was doing. He spent the next hour listening to my concerns while I sobbed. He instructed me in the need to care for myself as well my mother and then gave me two more names of doctors and wished me luck. The last one that I called only accepted children as patients but he suggested that I contact Dr. Jary Lesser with the University of Texas Mental Health Institute. He assured me that Dr. Lesser would be just the man who would help my mom.
Dr. Jary Lesser had an impressive CV. He had worked at some of the most outstanding hospitals in the United States and was a professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical School. I was thrilled when he agreed to see my mother with no questions asked. By the time we got her to Dr. Lesser, Mama was in an intense state of mania. Dr. Lesser insisted that she stay at one of our homes and that she be watched twenty four hours a day. He provided a stiff cocktail of medication and asked us to bring our mother back in two days. For the next several weeks he monitored her closely and before long she was doing better than she had for decades. It felt like a miracle.
For the next three years I accompanied my mother to regular visits with Dr. Lesser. He very strictly observed her behavior and knew when she was not taking her medication regularly. He was the first person who managed to get her to admit that she had bipolar disorder and he even convinced her to described what that disorder did to her. We felt that he was the best doctor that she had ever had and celebrated the good fortune of having him available for our mother. Then one day at one of her regular visits Dr. Lesser announced with more than a hint of anger that the state of Texas had so drastically reduced funding for mental health programs that he would no longer be allowed to work at the Mental Health Institute. Instead, the state would be sending him to work full time at the county psychiatric hospital. He noted that from that time forward my mother would be treated by psychiatric residents still learning the ins and outs of treating patients with mental illnesses.
I tried once again to find a full time seasoned psychiatrist who would take my mother, but by then she was well into her eighties and nobody wanted to work with someone her age. We had to use the program with the residents and to say it was a disaster would be an understatement. It ended with her being legally committed during one of her epic phases of mania and psychosis and since there were no beds in any of the hospitals in the Houston area, she spent the night in a locked room at Ben Taub Hospital, the only place that would take her.
Eventually she was sent to a psychiatric center in Bellaire, a dreary place that felt more like a prison than a place to get well and recuperate. My brothers and I lost all power to direct her care. Ir was one of the most gut wrenching moments of our lives, all because the state of Texas is not really interested in investing a great deal of funding for the mentally ill.
Since that time and my mother’s death I have read over and over again that funding for mental health services in the state of Texas continue to be regularly slashed, so I don’t buy the Governor’s assertion that the state would rather provide preventive care for potential shooters than impinge on the rights of decent gun owners. My personal experience tells me that he is full of hot air, and based on information from counselors that I know the backlog of patients waiting for appointments for therapy has never been worse.
I would be the first to applaud efforts to shore up the availability of mental health resources in our state, but at least for now I have seen no signs that such a thing is actually happening. Such a solution is also beside the point because right now in our state an eighteen year old who can’t even buy a beer or rent a car can legally purchase two AR-15s and one three hundred rounds of ammunition within a two day period with little or no hassle. Our state laws on gun possession and use are so lax that open carry no longer requires a permit or any kind of special training. There are no red flag laws either. It is unlikely that a young man like the shooter from a poor family with a mother addicted to drugs would have had any more luck finding treatment than I had in getting help for my mother, because of the scarcity of doctors and programs funded by the state. So don’t tell me that taking care of mental health is a priority for Texas. I call BS!