Waiting for disaster: How Michigan is failing the mentally ill

(WXYZ) - After 24 years on the bench in Wayne County, Judge Milton Mack is tired.  Tired of seeing care for the mentally ill get worse, of watching state spending continue to fall and seeing the same desperate families back in his courtroom until their crisis turns to tragedy.

"I see something that’s right in front of me, and it just strikes me as being extremely unjust and unfair," says  Mack. "And I’m a part of it. And I don’t want to be a part of it."

But if Judge Mack is fighting a battle to fix a broken system, he is surely losing. Today, Michigan spends less to treat the mentally ill than it did last year or the year before. Most state hospital beds have been replaced with jail cells.  Each day in his courtroom, the same sorry scene plays out, often with the very same characters.

A revolving door

Mary Gallagher is tired, too.  Her daughter Kristyn  was once an aspiring model, but at 19, her hopes were derailed when she was diagnosed as bipolar with schizophrenic tendencies.  

"When she has really severe breakdowns, she will ruin furniture...I mean just smash it to smithereens," Gallagher said. "She’s put big holes in the apartment walls."

Like many with severe mental illness, Kristyn has refused any sort of treatment or medication, forcing her mother to come to Wayne County probate court, petitioning judges like Milton Mack to authorize mental health treatment.  But that treatment, says her mom, hasn’t been much.  She’s had to come back, not just once or twice.

"Twelve times I had to go down and petition to have her assessed," Gallagher said.

Time after time, judges ordered Kristyn to be hospitalized for up to 60 days: long enough to get her medicated and stabilized. But she’s never been in the hospital for even close to that long. The average stay, her mom says, is a little over a week.

"You’re out of the hospital in a few days—you’re not necessarily well yet. But the belief is that you probably won’t shoot anybody in the next few days anyway," Judge Mack said. "You’re still not well, but you’re still discharged."

Short-term stays are the new normal now that longer term care is much harder to find.  Back in the 1990s, then-Governor John Engler led a push to close most of Michigan’s mental hospitals, going from 16 to just 5. 

"It’s just kind of like a revolving door," Gallagher said. "She’s not really getting the help that she really needs, but yet she can’t stay in there."

A systemic problem

Kristyn is not alone. Over the last five years, 926 patients have had four or more petitions filed on their behalf, begging for medical treatment.  The average hospital stay in Wayne County, says the judge, is under a week.

"And there’s no follow-up to make use that they stay well," Judge Mack said. "And then in a couple of months they’ll be back here again."

After 12 petitions for hospitalization, Mary Gallagher worries it won't be long before she's back in front of a judge.

"Do you feel like it's done any good?" asked 7 Investigator Ross Jones.

"No," she said. "It’s just kind of a coping mechanism. She’s still ill, she still has periods where she’s severely ill...I don’t know what’s going to happen to Kristyn after I go.

Watch part two of our five-part series tonight on 7 Action News at 11.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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