by Susan J. Shelley
In February 1996 my ex-husband Frank Velez, a former deputy sheriff from Los Angeles County, was released from prison. He had served ten years for murdering our seventeen-year-old son in our Arizona home.
I had suspected something was wrong with Frank several months before he killed Frank Jr. His eyes would darken and his face would pale. He became irrational, telling me, “I’m being programmed for a special mission. I’m going to send you up to see God.”
Alarmed, I took Frank to a medical clinic for examination the day before the murder. The doctor (not a psychiatrist) thought he was having a breakdown. What the doctor said at this point stunned me: “I don’t think Frank is dangerous, but he should admit himself to the hospital.”
Frank refused to go and refused all medications the doctor offered him. When this happened, the doctor called the police, thinking that incarceration would protect Frank and us from harm. The officer, however, said he could not incarcerate Frank because he hadn’t committed a crime. He was sent back home.
The following day, Frank spun into a psychotic episode. He kept our son and me hostage in the house. When Frank Jr. tried to calm his father, Frank shot him six times with a .38 revolver. Then he dragged me to the neighbors and barricaded them and me in the house. He took one neighbor hostage and held off police.
After a tense four-hour standoff, the neighbor escaped from the house unharmed. When Frank emerged, he was wearing a woman’s red nightgown, housecoat, slippers, and scarf. He had smeared red rouge and lipstick over his face, neck, arms, and hands.
According to trial testimony several months later, Frank had told his hostage that red made him invisible to the SWAT team’s infrared sights. When asked why he killed his son, Frank said, “He was just getting too big.”
This scenario, and variations of it, occur every day. A mentally ill family member threatens to commit violence. After being examined, he or she is released to the family. And the mind games begin.
Because doctors, hospitals, and police lack the authority or the funds for permanent confinement and treatment, they release the mentally ill to their families. Mothers, fathers, and spouses are therefore forced to become the main caretakers or watchdogs. They live with a time bomb, unaware that it is ticking and when it will explode.
Many are ignorant about mental illness and its warning signs, as I was. Others know about mental illness but refuse to believe their loved one could use violence against them. Rather than be prisoners of madness in their homes, families should know the warning signs of mental illness, the civil rights of the mentally ill, and where to turn for practical and spiritual help.
The American Psychiatric Association currently recognizes some 250 categories of mental disorders. Mental illnesses range from relatively minor, such as mild depression, to serious, such as schizophrenia and manic-depression. An individual can also experience more than one mental disorder at the same time, with overlapping symptoms.
Mental illness consists of a broad range of symptoms involving abnormalities in sensations, understanding, and emotional states. Groups of symptoms are not merely predictable responses to a specific stressful event, but are manifestations of the person’s psychological or biological dysfunction.
In some cases mental illness is inherited. In other cases it is caused by emotional stress, personality factors (paranoia, schizophrenia, narcissism, etc.), or varying amounts and types of chemicals in the brain. Personality disorders can lead to a lifetime of mental illness.
The right to remain mentally ill
Understanding mental illness is only half the battle, however. The other half is dealing with its legal side.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, laws were changed to enhance the civil rights of the mentally ill. These laws made it impossible to give medical help to people without their consent, regardless of how badly they needed it and how desperately their families needed protection from impending violence.
The patient’s civil rights thus took precedence over all other factors. Soon the right to remain mentally ill became the norm. The 1974 Yale Law Journal stated that people who were not mentally ill were just as dangerous as those who are, so it was discriminatory to institutionalize mentally ill persons before they actually committed violence or crimes. Normal people were guilty of neglecting their health (such as smoking and drinking excessively). Therefore, mentally ill people should not be forced into hospitals just because they don’t care for their daily needs.
The biggest shock of all was to discover that, according to law, the mentally ill cannot be treated against their own will. Laws ignore the brain’s irrational function that causes the person to refuse treatment or to admit to being ill in the first place. Though mentally ill people cannot tell the difference between reality and delusions, the law protects them from being hospitalized or incarcerated.
With nowhere to turn, the family becomes the institution for mentally ill people, forced with the duties of a qualified hospital staff.[4 ] But the family lacks knowledge of the illness and of how to handle the mentally ill if they threaten violence.
A vicious circle
A vicious circle begins at this point. Families are embarrassed by mentally ill members’ bizarre behavior. They shield them against outside intervention that could cause a violent psychotic phase.
Families are then forced to live in daily fear and uncertainty. What will the mentally ill member do next? What if help doesn’t arrive in time? Some cannot get help until the individual takes action.
Typically, most of the mentally ill deny they are ill and thus refuse treatment. Families face either turning their loved ones out on the street to protect themselves from danger or caring for them. More often than not, the victims of the mentally ill are usually other family members.
Who can help?
Thankfully, families with mentally ill members are not alone. Mental health organizations and support groups offer help and counsel. Had I known about these, I could have sought help for Frank and myself and even prevented our son’s death.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is one of the largest organizations. By 1996 NAMI had 1,100 affiliates located in fifty states and over 140,000 members. NAMI holds monthly meetings and yearly conferences and distributes handouts to educate families about mental illness, violence, the law, and their rights.
Besides NAMI, other support groups and emergency hotline numbers are listed in the phone book under Community Services or Mental Health Services, or are listed in the white pages. Most communities have mental health centers, legal assistance, local church support groups, and community youth programs.
A mentally ill person must be seen by a physician, preferably a psychiatrist. Early treatment leads to a better chance of staying under control. Call a physician, psychiatrist, or therapist in your area and ask for help and advice. Most medical insurance providers cover mental health.
Dealing with mental illness takes more than practical help; it takes spiritual help as well.
When Jesus lived on earth, He didn’t just walk on water and calm a raging storm. He walked among the mentally ill and healed them. His power overcame their tormented minds (Matthew 4:24; 17:15). Because of His experience here, Jesus understands the pain and frustration families face in caring for a mentally ill member. The same compassion that compelled Him to reach out to the mentally ill compels Him to reach out to their families. He knows that after group meetings and counseling sessions, families go home to face the dark void of a loved one’s mental illness.
That’s why Jesus urges, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). One of the biblical poets put it another way: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
God knows how easy it is to be engulfed by floodwaters and flames of despair in this life. He offers this comfort through the prophet Isaiah:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze (Isaiah 43:2).
The unfortunate part of life is that mind games exist and endanger family members. But we need not give in to despair. We can accept practical help from trained professionals. And through faith in God, we can have perfect peace to keep our own minds and hearts at rest (Isaiah 26:3; Philippians 4:6, 7).
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
- “Personality Disorders,” by Elaine F. Walker; Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. © 1992 CD-ROM.
- Madness in the Streets: How Psychiatry and the Law Abandoned the Mentally Ill, by Rael Jean Isaac and Virginia C. Armat, p. 249.
- Ibid., p. 250.