Speak up for mental health advocacy
Liam Barron is 11 years old. He lives in North Carolina with his parents, Michael Harrison and Natania Barron and his younger sister. He is obsessed with cars. Currently, Subarus are his favorites. Liam is autistic.
Michael and Natania have worked tirelessly with Liam. His mother writes that he struggles with “a mood disorder, dysgraphia, anxiety, and violent outbursts.” He takes medication, is in therapy and found an excellent fit in a private school.
Earlier this month, Liam had a breakdown at school. When the staff were unable to control him and he began talking about self-harm, his parents determined that he needed more help than he was currently getting. In Michael’s words, he needed “a comprehensive, multi-day psychiatric evaluation” and inpatient psychiatric care.
Unfortunately, in order to get a bed in a long-term, inpatient psychiatric facility in North Carolina, patients have to wait in the ER until a bed opens up at a psychiatric institution.
He was sent to the ER in a cop car as the family feared he would hurt others. Natania writes, “The on-site psychiatrist agreed that Liam needed to be checked in [and] she gave us a list of about 20 hospitals from Charlotte to Wilmington, and said that he could go to any one of them, but there are very few beds and that ‘this process takes time’.”
Liam had to wait 256 hours.
Michael and Natania relied on social media to draw attention to Liam’s story. Natania wrote about the situation on GlitterSquad and explained that during their wait, Liam was in five separate rooms with dozens of nurses and kids in the same situation, multiple panic attacks and meltdowns.
One morning, Liam told his parents that he had been restrained overnight after having a meltdown. In shock, they confronted the staff. The psychiatrist on staff had also not been informed and was shocked as well.
Michael and Natania learned that Liam had been rude to the nurses. They called him names while restraining him, and he said that the security guards teased him for crying. He was given a shot of haldol, an anti-psychiotic drug.
His parents filed a grievance but were told that the hospital would “look into it” and speak to the staff members responsible.
Again, Liam is 11 years old.
He was moved to a secure unit, into a small room with padded walls. He was desperate for air, struggled to breaths and had panic attacks. The hospital would not move him back.
On Facebook, Michael posted, “We’ve yet to meet with an attending physician or a social worker. Saw the ED psych on Sunday and briefly yesterday. But they haven’t offered any information on his status, position on waitlists at external facilities. Aside from a few of the caretakers, I’ve yet to find a single redeeming quality to this ‘system’ (if you can call it that). It’s broken.”
“We need him to get help, to protect himself and ourselves from his illness. But is this causing further damage? How could it not? We’re so tired. Tired of sitting, tired of waiting, tired of comforting him with empty words that help is coming. This system is failing these children, hundreds of times per day. It’s almost like it’s is designed to tire us out, to drive us to despair, and make us give up. Maybe that’s by design.”
On October 17, Liam was committed to a pediatric mental health facility. The family hopes that he will receive a proper evaluation and mental health care. Because of the nature of the breakdown he suffered that started this family crisis, he was placed in handcuffs and driven the two hours in a police car. Michael and Natania are not allowed to ride with him. This is a child who struggles to sit still for even minutes.
The hope is that Liam will be able to return home within two weeks, better able to manage his mental illness.
North Carolina Health News, an independent news organization devoted to the state’s health, picked up the story on October 17.
In the article, Michael does not blame the hospital. “The entire system is broken from a process perspective,” he said. “The system is just so screwed up.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness NC Interim Executive Director Nicholle Karim explains that in the last few decades, money and resources that were initially spent on hospitals and inpatient facilities was given back to the community during a “deinstitutionalization movement”. Karim adds, “What we have created is a crisis-based system,” Karim said. “Unfortunately our system is set up for police officers or hospitals to be that first line of triage,” she added. “It’s not working. That’s certain.”
Because the Barron Harrison family worked hard to spread Liam’s story over social media, Representative Graig Meyer (D-Durham), a social worker, used Twitter to share Natania’s blog post. He later appeared in a live Facebook stream with Natania.
Meyer said, “We have more people receiving psychiatric care in emergency rooms and jails right now than we do in real psychiatric treatment, residential treatment. We just haven’t invested enough money into this system and it’s failing people. It’s hurting kids like Liam and it’s hurting families like Natania’s. We have so much work that we need to do.”
Natania added, “Lives and families are at stake. We are in a crisis in this state and nationwide. This is so much more of an epidemic than we ever thought. There were so many children there that we met, dozens of kids of many ages, many of whom are repeat visitors to the ER who are trying to get the help that they need and for whatever reason are not able to. We do not have the facilities. It’s very necessary for these children to get residential care.”
She admitted that she and Michael are “no longer capable of managing this on our own.” As devastating as it was to leave Liam, she knows this is the only way to get him the care he needs.
This crisis in mental health is not limited to North Carolina. Lauren Rovinsky, a pediatric ER nurse, says that the same issues are happening in Pennsylvania. “They’ve turned an entire section of our ER into a psychiatric holding area since the closure of one of the local psych hospitals. It’s so sad, there’s nowhere for these poor kids and families to go. We have a full waiting room of sick kids because we have so many psychiatric emergencies.”
Rep. Meyer says, “This isn’t going to change until politicians at all levels understand that this is something that we have to take responsibility for. It really should be a campaign issues. We’re talking a lot about health care. We should be talking about mental health as a part of that.”
So what can be done? Share Liam’s story. Reach out to your representatives. Fight for mental health coverage in insurance plans. Keep talking about mental health so that children like Liam have access to the help they desperately need.