For One Family, Decision to Reject Treatment Ends With Tragic Death

Photo: For One Family, Decision to Reject Treatment Ends With Unspeakable Tragedy: Amy Bruce Murdered by 24-Year-Old Son After He Stopped Taking Medication

One out of four adults in the United States -- close to 60 million people -- is diagnosed every year with some form of mental disorder, and about one in 17 suffers from a serious mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. At the same time, more Americans than ever are relying on prescription drugs to treat the disorders.

But for members of the grass-roots activist movement known as "Mad Pride," medication isn't always the answer. Instead, they believe in embracing their mental disorders as something more than a disability or illness. Rather than alter what they believe is a useful and powerful "gift," Mad Pride activists say individuals have the inherent right to choose whether to take their prescribed medications.

David Oaks, a prominent Mad Pride activist and leader of the mental health advocacy organization MindFreedom International, of Eugene Ore., was once diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Despite the diagnosis, Oaks does not take medication. "My empowerment is part of my recovery in that I have choice," he said.

But while the Mad Pride movement has gained steam in recent years, it is not without its detractors. Joe Bruce of Caratunk, Maine, says he knows all too well what a tragic mistake rejecting treatment can be.

In June 2006, Bruce made a chilling call to 911 that he never imagined he would have to make.

Bruce and his wife, Amy, raised their three boys in the tiny New England town with a population of a little more than 100 people. Bruce says there was always something unique about their oldest son, William, better known as Willy.

"Throughout his childhood," Bruce said, "he would be the kid that would play rougher. ... He had a disturbing way of not considering other people. It was very difficult for his mother Amy [because she] was a person that wanted to raise her kids to care about other people."

At the time, the Bruces suspected it was just a stage that Willy would grow out of.

Instead, Willy grew into an increasingly troubled young man. More worrisome than failing grades in school, Willy had minor run-ins with the law, suicidal tendencies and would go for days without sleeping.

Decision to Reject Treatment Ends in Tragedy

Bruce recalled a chilling turning point in December 2003, when Willy exhibited frightening paranoia.

He told Bruce, "'Dad, there's people watching me, the CIA had planted a device under my skin.'"

It was then that the Bruces realized their son might be mentally ill.

By March 2005, Willy's troubles were painfully clear: At target practice, he threatened two longtime family friends with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle.

Through tears, Bruce remembered that dark day. A Maine state trooper was sent to question Willy, whose paranoia was clearly on display. "He pointed at the ceiling and he said, 'It's bugged,'" Bruce, 57, said.

In the next year, Willy underwent psychiatric evaluations. First diagnosed with bipolar disorder and then paranoid schizophrenia,Willy was eventually admitted to the Riverview Psychiatric Center, a long-term inpatient facility in Augusta, Maine.

But at the age of 24, Willy was old enough to legally refuse psychiatric treatment. Despite warnings from his parents and several doctors that he was a serious risk if he discontinued treatment, he was soon released, after less than three months at Riverview.

"He didn't want help, he didn't want medicine," Bruce said. "He insisted there was nothing wrong."

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