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Uncommitted: How high standards are fueling a cycle that can fail people with serious mental illness

Most severely mentally ill people don't meet civil commitment standards, but many struggle on their own. What's left is a mental health system with frustrating gaps.

Evan Watson

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Published: 5:06 PM PDT August 29, 2022
Updated: 12:35 PM PDT September 6, 2022

Brenda Gardner started to notice changes in her son Eric's behavior during his senior year of college.

Eric did, too.

He told his parents he thought he needed brain surgery, so the Gardners picked him up from college and brought him home to see what was wrong.

Within months, Eric started showing escalating symptoms of a severe mental illness: chronic psychosis, delusions and violent thoughts.

"One day, he came downstairs screaming at me, spittle shooting out of his mouth," his mother Brenda Gardner said. "We had never seen anything like that before and that kind of volatile behavior just continued, it became much worse over time."

After violent threats, a booking in jail, a release, a no-contact order and a suicide scare, eventually mental health evaluators placed Eric on a hold — taking him to a hospital against his will for a medical assessment.

A doctor determined his mental illness was creating a danger to himself or others.

Following two weeks of treatment and care in a medical facility, Eric was released as his symptoms "stabilized," his mother said.

However, his chronic psychosis quickly returned and he stopped taking medication.

Family members tried to help and Eric lived with his parents for years, but he's now homeless.

"It just can't last, at some point it crumbles," Brenda Gardner said. "It's not Eric's fault. What I say is he's the victim, we're just collateral damage."

Credit: Gardner family
Eric Gardner, in a photo shared by his parents. Eric Gardner developed mental illness symptoms during his senior year of college. He's now homeless in the Seattle area.

Eric Gardner was caught in a gray area. He wasn’t judged to be dangerous enough to warrant detention and forced treatment — what's known as civil commitment — but his symptoms worsened on his own.

His parents said housing was a constant concern and they lacked options for help.

Eric’s story is one example of how the current mental health system can fail to help people with severe mental illness.

High standards for civil commitment in both Oregon and Washington are creating a cycle in which most people don't reach requirements for involuntary treatment and care, but many aren't able to care for themselves once released.

Whether through a lack of resources, housing, workers, follow-up care or the current laws and standards themselves, KGW explores the gaps in our mental health system and how our entire community is suffering for it.

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