Caring For A Schizophrenic Son, Worrying About The Future | KUER 90.1

Caring For A Schizophrenic Son, Worrying About The Future

Nov 24, 2013
Originally published on November 24, 2013 4:25 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

This week, mental health is in the spotlight after former Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds was stabbed by his son, who then killed himself. In the Sunday Conversation, NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Gary Mihelish about caring for and advocating on the behalf of a child with a severe mental illness. At Mihelish's request, the names of his wife and sons have been left out of this conversation.

Gary Mihelish's elder son has lived with schizophrenia for 29 years. Mihelish remembers a psychotic episode in 1991 that made it clear something serious was wrong.

Mihelish and his wife were used to their son taking off on photography trips and disappearing for a few days. They worried about these trips a lot, but this time was different.

"Four or five days later, we got a long-distance phone call from Santa Monica Boulevard," Mihelish tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "He said, 'I'm someplace called Santa Monica Boulevard. I can't find my truck. I parked it and I don't know where it is.' "

Mihelish's wife convinced a bank manager to loan their son money to get to a relative's house. She realized something was terribly wrong with their son and brought him back to their Montana home. "My wife basically kidnapped him, because he was of legal age ... and we were told we could not take him back to Montana against his will," Mihelish says.

There, the Mihelish family endured a traumatic transition. "His younger brother ... slept with a baseball bat under his bed because he was afraid he would be attacked," Mihelish remembers. That did happen once. At a family dinner, the elder son hit the younger son, who ended up with three stitches. Mihelish's elder son broke his hand.

"That was the only violent thing [that] ever happened in 29 years, but it was terribly scary," says Mihelish. "You just wonder what's happening. Basically our son is very gentle, very sensitive. And he still is today."

Since then, things have stabilized. After trying numerous medications, Mihelish's son has found one that works and is living with his schizophrenia in check. "He delivers meals on wheels to about 60 senior citizens and shut-ins, and the clients he serves love him," Mihelish says.

Things are good now, but the big question mark is what happens next. "We're his main support system, and we socialize together. He eats dinner with us every night, and about 9 or 10 o'clock he goes to his home." Relatives have said they'll care for him after Mihelish can't anymore, but, he says, "you worry anyway."

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A Virginia state senator named Creigh Deeds was brutally assaulted by his son last week. The attack put the elder Deeds into the hospital and it left his son, Austin, dead after shooting himself. Just a day before, a judge issued an emergency custody order for Austin Deeds after a psychiatric evaluation. Officials initially said Deeds went home because there was no bed available in a psychiatric facility. But The Washington Post reports that three nearby hospitals said they had space but they were never contacted.

Creigh Deeds was released from the hospital Friday. And in a Twitter message he said, quote, "I am alive so must live. Some wounds won't heal."

This morning, the very specific struggle of caring for a family member who suffers from mental illness.

GARY MIHELISH: We knew something was wrong when he was a sophomore in high school. He began to isolate and he just withdrew into himself. We thought it might just be adolescence, an adjustment. But when he came home from the first day of school and said I'm not going to school anymore, you get a feeling that that's not appropriate behavior.

MARTIN: That is the voice of Gary Mihelish of Helena, Montana. His oldest son has been living with schizophrenia for 29 years. When his son was in his early 20s, he had a psychotic breakdown and took off to California. He had no money, was living on the streets. And finally, he got in touch with his parents who brought him back home to Montana.

Gary Mihelish is our Sunday Conversation.

MIHELISH: I remember very clearly the day he was back in our home and he was very upset and agitated that he was back. And he got up and ran out of the house and I followed him at a distance. And my wife called the county attorney and the sheriff, and asked the sheriff to pick him up for a mental health evaluation. After about a week in the hospital, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

MARTIN: How had his symptoms changed over time? Did he continue to be withdrawn? Or did he ever lash out? Was he ever violent?

MIHELISH: His younger brother, who was in the room next door to him in the basement, slept with a baseball bat under his bed 'cause he was afraid he would be attacked by his older brother. When I learned that, that was definitely concerning. But he was violent only once that I know of. When my father had colon cancer and had part of his colon removed, and I went up to the hospital after work to visit my father and my youngest son was sitting on the edge of the bed with my dad. And he had bandages over his eye and asked him what happened.

And he said, well, my brother hit me at the dinner table, and I had to come to the emergency room and had three stitches. I said, OK, but where's your brother? And he said, Well, he's in the emergency room also. He broke his hand. And so, that was the only violent thing we ever happened in 29 years, but it was terribly scary. You just wonder what's happening. Basically, our son is very gentle, very sensitive. And he still is today.

MARTIN: At the same time, you're also trying to parent another child.

MIHELISH: My younger son was embarrassed to bring his friends to our home. And he didn't come home himself much of the time. And it was a big adjustment for him because his brother was kind of his role model. And we struggled with our younger son for about four or five years before we were finally able to begin to work together. And over time, the younger son has been the rock and the safeguard for our older son. He's become his role model.

MARTIN: When did things finally start to stabilize?

MIHELISH: We had a commitment hearing. And the judge, who we knew - this is small town so people know each other. And the judge told our son and said: I want you to take the medication and if you don't take the medication, I'll put you in the state hospital.

Then we started on a road to recovery, but it took us a year to find the right medication. And we spent a year with a mentally ill individual in our home. And it was extremely trying and difficult. After a year, as a last choice, the psychiatrist recommended a medication that has very serious side effects. But it was our last chance and we decided to go with that medication. And with two weeks, his symptoms began to subside. And within six months, we basically had our son back.

MARTIN: How are both your sons doing now?

MIHELISH: Our sons are doing pretty darn good.


MIHELISH: Our youngest son is a high school teacher and a football coach. And he has three children who live across the street from us.

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

MIHELISH: And then our oldest son, who lives with the illness, he delivers Meals on Wheels to about 60 senior citizens and shut-ins. And the clients that he serves love him. He takes them gifts and photographs and he does very well. But he still struggles.

MARTIN: Is he happy?

MIHELISH: I would say so. I would say he's happy. He - the difficulty in this is that we're his main support system and we socialize together. He eats dinner with us every night and about 9 or 10 o'clock, he goes to his home. And so, we're definitely concerned about what will happen to him after we're gone. He's got a brother and an uncle who've said for us not to worry. But you worry anyway.

MARTIN: There is a debate in this country about mental health and resources; are people getting the access to care that they need. Do you think that there is enough information that there's enough care out there for people who need it?

MIHELISH: I know there's not enough care for people. I know there's not enough resources. I've been involved in this mental illness treatment sys for 29 years and it's sorely lacking. I think the shinning example is just what happened in the last week in Virginia, where the state senator was attacked by his mentally ill son and then the son committed suicide. Apparently from the reports, that he tried the day before to access care at a psychiatric facility and he's turned away. So I don't know the whole story and probably never will, but the tragedies never end.


MARTIN: Gary Mihelish of Helena, Montana, he and his wife now teach other families how to care for loved ones with mental illness.


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