Representative Helton & Senator Gardenhire, Before Covid-19 upended everything, you were gracious enough to meet with me when I visited your Nashville offices in February when I participated in Nami TN’s Day on the Hill, to advocate for better mental health care. Thank you for your time.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 46 million American adults lived with a mental illness in 2017. That’s almost 20% of our adult population. Furthermore, over 4% of US adults suffered from a serious mental crisis. Since Tennessee has almost 9 million residents, we can assume that over 360,000 of our neighbors suffer from serious mental conditions. And Covid-19 has only made this suffering worse. As I have written to you in the past, my wife (Lauren) is one of these adults.
You may recall that in the summer of 2019, Lauren suffered from a mental health crisis, and assaulted me. When I yelled to the neighbors to call 911, I knew that it was imperative that she receive treatment from a mental hospital. But unfortunately, the responding police officers didn’t agree, and they hauled her off to jail.
We Need More Funding for Mental Health Initiatives.
Lauren’s story is a classic example of why it is crucial that Tennessee directs more funding towards Crisis Intervention Teams and for mental health programs. Crisis Intervention Teams are made up of police officers who get specialized training on how to deal with situations involving someone experiencing a mental health crisis. The officers who responded that evening were clearly not trained to realize Lauren needed medical attention.
So I’m writing once again to ask for this funding.
Additionally, I ask that you direct more funding towards substance abuse and prevention programs. My cousin died, just 2 months ago, due to an accidental overdose. He was one of millions of people affected by the Opioid Crisis. He wanted to live, and he had recently completed rehab. Unfortunately, this was not enough. The outcome was what nobody wanted.
Thank you for your time, and thank you for your service to the state of Tennessee and Hamilton County.
How my wife went from mental health crisis, to jail, to the hospital, to home. And how I had to fight the legal system along the way.
On Wednesday, July 31, 2019, my world turned upside down…
For the second time in our five years of marriage, my wife, Lauren, had a psychotic break – a mental health crisis. But this time it was different. I had a 1 & 1/2 year old daughter to take care of. And Lauren was taken to jail.
According to state law, Lauren had assaulted me. As a defendant, she was barred from having any communication with me, the victim. I was not allowed to see her. I was not allowed to take her to the hospital when she was bailed out of jail 12 hours later. And for almost an entire week, I was not allowed to talk to her. And so, where the law was meant to protect and help citizens, I had to fight the State of Tennessee to help bring normalcy back to my family.
People are talking more frequently about Bipolar Disorder…
Right around the same time Lauren got sick, This American Life aired an episode featuring NYT Magazine author Jamie Lowe’s struggle with bipolar disorder and her experience with a type of trauma therapy known as CPT (cognitive processing therapy). Although she has a different life story than Lauren’s, I would recommend the episode, Ten Sessions, as a bird’s eye view into the life of someone who has bipolar disorder.
Lowe has also written a book about her experience with bipolar disorder and a medication she was on for a long time, lithium. I haven’t read the book, but it gets good reviews on Amazon. And as I listened to the first half of last weekend’s This American Life episode, I was grateful for Lowe’s openness on the topic.
As I was getting into bed late that Wednesday night, I was incredulous. WHY ON EARTH was Lauren taken to jail, and not to a mental hospital, where she actually belonged?
I tagged Tennessee State Representative Rep. Mike Carter in the following tweet because he has fought on behalf of the mental health community, and I appreciate his advocacy work.
About 30 minutes prior to tweeting, I sent an SOS text message to a few of my church friends:
Please urgently pray for Lauren and my family. She’s had a psychotic break…. and is currently in jail due to state law. Mark [Lauren’s dad] is posting bail tomorrow morning, and taking her to a mental hospital…. I’m taking off work until at least Friday.
Exhausted because I only slept 5 hours, I woke up Thursday morning in a daze. Did that just happen? Yes, the bumps on my head were still there.
Suddenly thrust into the role of a single parent – when I would normally have been at work – my focus was on my daughter. She needed a lot of reassurance that first day, that everything was (going to be) OK.
By mid-morning, my phone was blowing up with concerned friends and church members, wondering how they could help. I asked one of my best friends from church to help me delegate. If I needed anything at all that week, I would text him or 1-2 others, and I knew he would take care of it.
On Friday morning, a family friend picked up our daughter so that I could have a few hours to myself. I needed time to think, prioritize tasks, and to talk to Lauren’s regular psychiatrist. I also needed to get letters from Lauren’s doctors that would help to lift the no-contact order.
My brother and his wife came to help on Friday evening. He and I ate at a cheap hibachi restaurant down the road, and she watched my daughter. I was exhausted, but it was good to get out of the house for the first time.
Specific events run together, and the weekend was a blur…
The elders came to pray for and encourage me. My friends brought dinner Saturday night, and sat with me as I grieved. Saturday night, I had trouble sleeping again. I woke up Sunday morning at 3:30am.
That’s when I had to rant…
The legal fight that should not have been…
On Monday, the same mother who watched my daughter the previous Friday morning watched her again. I dropped my daughter off at this friend’s house at 10am, and went to work. I was encouraged and full of optimism.
Monday afternoon, my brother (a local lawyer) and I went to court – the first time – to try and get the no-contact order lifted. When Lauren would eventually be released from the hospital, she wouldn’t be able to come home without the order lifted. We expected that there wouldn’t be much of an issue. We were wrong.
The judge said we needed to get a letter from the hospital where Lauren was, that specifically stated it would be beneficial to Lauren for her to have contact with me.
So I called the hospital and explained the situation to the social worker.
The hospital wouldn’t budge. They explained that they didn’t have any history with Lauren or me, and so couldn’t say that it would actually be beneficial for Lauren to come home when she would eventually be released from the hospital. I talked to them multiple times, and even met with them in person. It was all for naught. They wouldn’t write a letter with the specific wording the judge said we needed..
To make matters worse, Lauren had recently begun seeing a new therapist who had never met me. The therapist was equally hesitant to write anything that she could not say with certainty. And Lauren’s psychiatrist was unavailable to write a letter until Wednesday.
On the one hand, I get it. State law is meant to protect, and in most cases of domestic violence, there absolutely needs to be a period of separation between victim and defendant. But on the other hand, my wife was sick, and had a diagnosed mental illness. This was not a typical domestic issue. She needed a safe, stable place to come home to.
Unfortunately, my only option was to wait until Wednesday, when Lauren’s psychiatrist could write her letter, even though the judge said he needed a letter from the hospital.
Preparing for the second attempt…
On Wednesday, I went to work at my day job (someone else volunteered to watch my daughter) in the morning, but I couldn’t focus. I knew I was going to court again in the afternoon, and I didn’t know if Lauren’s psychiatrist’s letter would be enough to convince the judge.
I drove to the hospital mid-morning, and talked to the the social worker at the hospital one last time in the hopes of getting them to provide the exact wording that we wanted in a letter for the judge. They still wouldn’t budge.
That morning, I got a phone call from someone else at the hospital that Lauren was going to be released Thursday. On the one hand, this was great news. Lauren was improving and was about to be released. On the other hand, she still couldn’t come home – which was the best place for her.
After trying (and failing) to focus for 30 minutes, I gave up, and went to a coffee shop for lunch before court started in the afternoon. I ran into a friend (he surprised me by paying for my lunch) and that was an unexpected source of encouragement. I was tired, nervous, and wanted this nightmare behind me.
Finally, it was time.
Armed with the psychiatrist’s letter, I met my brother at his office, who had some concerns about the particular wording of one of the sentences in that letter. After a last minute phone call and scramble to get that fixed, and we were on our way.
Court, a second time…
We sat for about 2 hours, waiting our turn. You see, General Sessions court (in Hamilton County, anyway) has a large docket on any given day, and we had to appear without any prior schedule, meaning the court had to fit us in with no prior notice. My brother knew the process though, and eventually, the judge heard our case – the second time.
Finally, I had great news. Not only was Lauren going to be released from the hospital on Thursday, but she was coming home – the best and safest place for her. With the no-contact order lifted, I was also able to visit Lauren in the hospital Wednesday night – a full week after this nightmare started.
Reflections and relief…
As I drove Lauren home that Thursday afternoon and in the following days, I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have turned out differently if Tennessee state law had accounted for a mental health crisis in the event of domestic assault. The responding officers’ hands were tied, and I harbor no ill will towards them. However, it still frustrates me to no end that Lauren was not taken immediately to a hospital.
The drive home was quiet. I was exhausted. Lauren was exhausted. And I knew that she had experienced a lot of trauma. My entire family had endured a week’s worth of trauma. But Lauren was coming home.
Approximately a month and a half after the incident described, Lauren and I, along with my brother, appeared in court for her scheduled court date to address the charge of domestic assault. The prosecutor completely dismissed the charge, and Lauren’s record has been cleared.
David is a husband and father who lives in Chattanooga, TN. He is a Systems & Cybersecurity Engineer for EPB, a local Internet Service Provider. Learn more about him at https://www.davidmartinwhite.com/about/.
A huge thank you to my brother, Daniel White, who provided free legal assistance during the mess described in this blog post.
Another huge thank you to all of my extended family, my church (New City East Lake) and friends who jumped in and helped us this week. From visiting Lauren in the hospital when I couldn’t because of the no-contact court order, to babysitting my daughter, to dropping food off, to simply sitting with me. I couldn’t have made it through the week without you. Thank you.