Mississippi mental health care: ‘The system failed Bobby’

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Billy Watkins/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Bobby Thomas talks with his mentor, Angela Ladner, executive director of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association.

BROOKHAVEN – Some of the details are sketchy, clouded by time and his battles with a bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Others remain painfully clear.

On April 18, 2008, Bobby Thomas was arrested and spent four days in the Franklin County jail. Thomas says he was not administered his medication that helps keep his mind steady and calm. Why is unclear.

“I would start hallucinating,” Thomas says. “I always thought someone was staring at me and was trying to harm me. I heard voices. It was a lot of different voices and hard to decipher which was which. I felt like I had ants crawling all over me. I couldn’t sleep. It was awful.”

Thomas, 49, of Brookhaven is a prime example of what a federal judge has determined as Mississippi’s failure to adequately care for those suffering with mental illness.

Research shows that when mentally ill patients fail to seek help or do not take their prescribed medication, their condition can become more complicated to treat.

“Time without their medication is critical,” says Katherine Pannel, a psychiatrist and medical director of Right Track Medical Group, located in Oxford, Tupelo, Starkville, Olive Branch and Corinth. “The brain becomes in a state of crisis, and it becomes more difficult to get their brains back to the base line it was at when they were stable.

“It’s obvious that more education is needed about mental health, especially with our law enforcement and firefighters who are going to deal with mentally ill patients. They have to know what to do.”

Says Angela Ladner, executive director of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association: “The system failed Bobby. While law enforcement is not in the business of administering medicine, Bobby should have received it some way. He should have never been in jail to begin with.

“If I mentioned that someone had cancer, I would get everyone’s attention — and that’s the way it should be. But when I mention mental illness, most of the time I only get a lot of blank stares. People don’t understand it. Our state doesn’t understand it.

“These people have a brain disorder that they are born with. They cannot function without intervention. It’s real easy to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Oh, he or she is just crazy’ and go on about your business. We are not serving their needs as we should.”

Thomas spent most of his time behind bars awaiting an available bed at the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield.

Department of Mental Health dramatically increases forensic beds at State Hospital

Gradual descent into mental illness

Graphics credit: Katherine Mitchell/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting Source:Mental Health America, Access to Care Ranking 2020

Graphics credit: Katherine Mitchell/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting              Source:Mental Health America, Access to Care Ranking 2020

This could happen to anyone. Twenty percent of Americans will suffer severe mental illness during their lifetime.

“Mental health problems are something that wasn’t talked about years ago, and that has trickled down through the generations,” Pannel says. “It’s taboo to discuss it. It makes people fearful. And people don’t really try and understand it until it affects them or a family member.”

Through the first 20 years of his life, Thomas showed no noticeable mental problems. He graduated with honors from Franklin County High School in 1988. He received the Herring Gas Co. scholarship and graduated nursing school at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in 1990.

He worked at the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery VA Hospital in Jackson. On his off days, he rotated shifts between Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson, University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and Merit Health Region hospital in Vicksburg.

“I was saving money to help get my mama a house,” Thomas says.

The fourth of nine children, Thomas was also helping some of his siblings financially.

But his job at the VA hospital was taking a toll on him mentally.

“A lot of the people I dealt with were Vietnam veterans,” he says. “I listened to their stories, and I tried to help as many as I could. But me being a compassionate person, it kinda got to me.”

Around that same time, his maternal grandmother, Irene Mitchell, died. Thomas and his mother moved in with his grandmother when he was 3.

“She was like the song in my life — the wind beneath my wings,” he says. “Losing her was really difficult.”

In 1994, Thomas quit his jobs. He stayed in his room at his mother’s house most of the time, only coming out to eat or use the bathroom.

“It was a gradual thing,” Thomas explains. “I would have these crying spells for no reason. I wouldn’t talk to anyone.”

His mother and one of his sisters intervened. They drove him to King’s Daughters Hospital in Brookhaven. He was soon transferred to UMMC where he was diagnosed. He began taking medication and was released after 14 days.

But his life had changed tremendously. In a matter of weeks, Thomas went from working at four hospitals to drawing disability checks. The medication helped him function better. The crying spells subsided.

In 2000, Thomas says he “began having problems at home.” Five of his siblings, who were living with Thomas and their mother, couldn’t understand why he wasn’t working anymore. It was affecting them financially. Tension increased between Thomas and his siblings.

Depression set in again. His mother didn’t wait long this time. She called 911 and an ambulance transported him to UMMC. He was eventually transferred to the State Hospital at Whitfield.

Doctors adjusted his medicine, and Thomas was soon stabilized again. He was released but continued out-patient therapy.

He was doing well until 2008 and his first skirmish with law enforcement.

His time in jail was ‘horrible’

This is where the details get fuzzy.

Thomas says he was taken into custody by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, then transferred to the Franklin County jail. Thomas says someone used his computer to post an alleged extramarital affair between two individuals in Franklin County.

Thomas says he has no idea who would have posted that. He believes the subjects of the post had him arrested. No one at either sheriff’s department can confirm the Facebook post.

Records show Thomas was arrested on that date. The reason listed: Simple assault on a police officer, which is a felony. The charge was later dropped.

Thomas doesn’t recall a physical skirmish.

But he does recall that his ankle was chained to the bar of his cell and he says he was refused his medication, which he says his mother brought to the jail.

No one knows for sure what happened or why.

Graphics credit: Katherine Mitchell/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting                      Source: Mental Health America, Access to Care Ranking 2020

From conversations with people in the court system and in the mental health field, what often happens in these cases is that a patient runs out of his or her medication, family members call law enforcement or a hospital when the person’s behavior turns sour.  Suddenly, a patient is stuck in a cell — without medication — until the State Hospital has a vacant room.

After four days in jail, Thomas spent eight weeks at the State Hospital. He was admitted again a month later for two more weeks.

Thomas recalls his time in jail as “horrible.”

“The voices came back. I thought someone was out to get me again. It felt like bugs were crawling on me,” he says. “I still can’t understand why I didn’t receive my medicine.”

There is much that Ladner doesn’t understand about Thomas’ arrest.

In 2007, a Crisis Stabilization Unit was in its second year of operation in Brookhaven. Units are now located in 13 locations across the state. Patients are taken there instead of jail or to the State Hospital for up to 14 days. Under the guidance of the state’s 14 regional mental health centers, the units are a partnership between law enforcement and their respective local mental health community.

An important note: The State Hospital was running the unit in Brookhaven in 2008.  Region 8 took it over two years later.

“I don’t know why Bobby wasn’t taken there. He could’ve got his medicine there,” Ladner says. That’s why these units are so important.

“That’s why I say the system failed Bobby.”

‘I know that God is on my side’

Thomas spent time in the State Hospital on three more occasions —four weeks in 2009, two weeks in 2011 and one week in 2013.

Billy Watkins/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Bobby Thomas finds peace in listening to the Mississippi Mass Choir and reading books about religion.

“I’ve been doing a lot better lately,” Thomas says.

He is seeing a psychiatrist regularly.  Every 30 days he receives an injection of Haldol, a medication used to battle different forms of mental illness. One of the side effects is a hand tremor.

“I can live with a little shaking,” Thomas says with a smile.

He lives with his mother and one of his younger brothers — both of whom have been diagnosed as bipolar. He is fighting new battles — diabetes, high blood pressure and a decline in his eyesight.

Thomas has discovered that certain music helps him stay calm.

“I listen to the Mississippi Mass Choir all the time. I have all their CDs,” he says. “I listen to Whitney Houston and Kenny G, too.”

Thomas doesn’t hesitate when asked if he is happy.

“Very happy,” he says. “I know that God is on my side. I’m thankful that I’m still (alive). I know that time in jail without my medicine has affected me. I hope people take my story to heart and that nobody else ever has to go through what I did. Everybody deserves their medication when they’re sick.”

This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.