Medical Bills Bankrupt Families of Mentally Ill Children

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Mental Illness Begins Early, Treatment Delayed

About half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14, and decades often lapse before these people get treatment, according to research supported by the NIMH. By the time they reach adulthood, their disorders are more severe and not as easy to treat, leading to the development of co-occurring conditions, research finds.

The multi-university study looked at the heath care policy for federal employees, which is comprehensive and generous. "We should all have the kind of insurance that members of Congress have," said Barry.

"Historically, there has been inpatient day and outpatient visit limits for services," she said. "For example, you only get 25 outpatient visits. After that, families pay everything themselves. That was the old way of doing things. Now, if those limits don't exist for medical care, they shouldn't exist for mental health care."

Barry did say "there's reason for hope," because costs do appear to be going down, and financial protections for families that emerge from this law should be larger than in the study.

But families who are struggling are far from hopeful.

Another family from Nebraska was urged by doctors to give up custody of their son Ned to the state to "open the door for services," according to the boy's grandmother, Mary Thunker, 59.

Practically from birth, the boy was violent and out of control. He was eventually diagnosed with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), opposition defiance disorder and some bipolar tendencies.

"The doctors knew that the only way to get services in the time frame was to give up custody and let him be a ward of the state," she said. "I came unglued and said, 'We are never doing that.'"

In 2009, when Ned was 12, his doctors said the boy needed "more than a year" of expensive residential care and the state denied payment, according to Thunker.

Ned was covered by Medicaid and his father had private insurance that covered much of the out-of-pocket expenses, but the family spent "thousands" on traveling, meals and therapy for other members of the family. They even moved 150 miles from their home to Omaha so he could be placed at Boys Town, where he lived for more than a year.

Today, Ned is 15 and stable, but the financial strain for him and others continue.

As for Jaimie Morrissey, she has been to numerous hospitals around the country to deal with her multiple problems.

"We went to a place in St. Louis for residential treatment for five months -- then insurance kicked her out," said her father. "We had to take her home and deal with it."

"We have been kicked around from facility to facility," he said. "I am nowhere as sane as I was."

Her siblings, aged 13 and 9, are also suffering.

This week, Jaimie was to go to North Carolina for nine weeks of residential treatment.

"How are we going pay for the hotels and meals while she is there?" Morrissey asked. "I wish I could be there, but someone has to take care of the two boys who go to school and I have to be there for them. And I have to work somehow."

"There isn't enough support available unless you have a lot of money," he said. "My wife can't work -- she's been with our daughter 24/7. I work on commission -- it's an incredible stress."

Morrissey has begun to write a book, "In Search of Dignity," to share his struggle with others. But, he said, "it never has an ending."

ABC's Dr. Rebecca Chasnovitz contributed to this report.

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