Nick O’Rourke was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20. It’s been 15 years since then, and his mom, Mimi Feldman, says it’s as if her son is “stuck in time.”
“We all look at Facebook and look at your son's friends growing up... You have to let go of all the dreams that you have, and my disappointment is even secondary... Imagine his disappointment,” Feldman said. “You know, he lost the life that he had, too.”
Feldman and her husband Craig O’Rourke’s home is tucked into the forested hills of southern Washington. Inside, the lifelong artists proudly display not only their own work, but that of their son, Nick O’Rourke, too.
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“For a long time he stopped. He stopped doing his own art but he started drawing in coloring books, but his drive to push color across the surface is so strong that he has to keep doing it, no matter what,” Feldman said. “I realized that he has this disease that makes his mind a scary place sometimes.”
Her son is one of the nearly 1.5 million Americans diagnosed with Schizophrenia. The condition is characterized by psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and unusual thinking, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The disease is believed to be associated with changes in the brain that occur during puberty that may trigger psychotic episodes in people who are vulnerable, according to the National Institutes of Health.
For Nick O’Rourke there is no one-size-fits-all treatment available, said Feldman.
“I never give up hope, but the medications -- the standard medications -- not great,” she said.
Nick O’Rourke’s parents, however, say that the medication he’s been taking most recently, Clozapine, has made him the best version of himself that they’ve seen in a decade.
In his own words, Nick O’Rourke says the illness is “like stress and imbalance, with mood and energy.”
It’s a common misconception that people with mental illnesses are inherently violent, and that people with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are also 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.
This is something Feldman fears whenever her son interacts with police.
In her book, “He Came in With It,” Feldman documents her family’s experience with mental illness -- the few triumphs and the many horrors that they’ve had -- such as one incident involving police.
“Actually, I called 911 and I asked for an ambulance, and the police showed up first,” Feldman said. “I started to explain Nick’s situation and he said to me, ‘Don't even tell me… Don't bother telling me. Tell it to the ambulance. Tell it to the medical people when they come.’ I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘Well, you're the guy with the gun. So, I'm gonna tell this to you, and I'm gonna stand between you and my son.’”
Feldman sees it as a privilege that she’s able to tell police that she’s going to guard her son.
“If I was Black or brown, if I was in a different shoes in this life, I don't know that I would have the luxury of saying, ‘I'm going to stand between you and my son,’” said Feldman. I'm finding myself fighting battles and in situations… I get to go in there with a different position of privilege than other people do.”
For some people of color seeking help for their mental illness, the consequences have been fatal. In Texas, Patrick Warren Jr. says he called 911 on Jan. 10 asking for a mental health check up for his father, who was gunned down after police responded. The officer was placed on administrative leave after the shooting and Texas Rangers as well as Killeen Police are investigating, according to KWTX.
In California, Angelo Quinto’s family says he was depressed and having a mental health episode on Dec. 23, 2020. When police responded to his family’s 911 call, they allegedly knelt on his neck and he died days later from a neck injury. Police deny they knelt on his neck.
Police-related deaths like these have sparked growing calls to reimagine policing in America. Some police departments in cities around the country have already started to shift their resources toward mental health crisis management and away from strictly police responses. Feldman said she’s been “very happy to see” these efforts.
“I think that [the current policing standard] is so far from being functional... it ties into the whole mental health system, which is so terribly broken,” she said. “I mean, I think to call it broken is a compliment.”
Just a few hours south of Feldman’s home, in Eugene, Oregon, the police department was one of the first cities to adopt a community-focused approach to mental health emergencies.
“We're having some really really candid conversations about whether or not the police department should be the response to some of those crises,” said Chris Skinner, the city’s police chief.
For more than 30 years, Eugene has relied on a public safety system called CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets.
Instead of dispatching an officer for a mental health emergency, the police department deploys a medic and crisis worker, neither of whom are armed, in hopes that it will help prevent the situation from escalating.
Skinner says his department is one of the program’s biggest supporters.
“For years, we've been asked to do more and more and more. We're oftentimes the fallback or the trap that catches everything... Society has not created capacity for [the] people that we deal with,” said Skinner.
Feldman said she once struggled to cope with the changes she saw in her son’s behavior, but then her daughter helped her gain hope and perspective.
“She said to me, ‘Mom, why are you crying?’ And I said, ‘I'm crying because I miss your brother.’ Then she says, ‘What do you mean you miss him? He's not gone, he's still here.’ And I just said, ‘Yeah, but he's not who he was supposed to be,’” Feldman said. “She looks at me and she says, ‘Yeah, he is. It's just not what you thought.’”