Mission to Improve the Mental Health System

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Judy Kelson Murray says he son was mentally ill when he drove his car into an East Haven gas station last month, but she couldn’t get the help he needed. The Troubleshooters investigate the tragic events that led to his death, and the proposed changes to protect people struggling with mental illness. (Published Monday, Jun 16, 2014)

    When a car went up in flames at an East Haven gas station on May 24th, it might have appeared like an accident. But witnesses told police the car was already burning before impact. When Judy Kelson Murray found out it was her 23-year-old son behind the wheel, she knew it was intentional. 

    "He probably left the house 15 minutes after I did with a can of gasoline and a propane tank in his car," said Murray.

    It was the end of a life long struggle with mental illness for Daniel Kelson. At 13, he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. It started with mood swings from the happy, kind boy his mother knew to an inexplicably angry child she couldn't understand. Judy says in the last few years, things got much worse.

    "He was progressively getting angrier and angrier. He was hearing the voices all the time,” said Murray. “His friends and I knew when he heard them. He would just sit there and stare."

    Daniel told his mother those voices urged him to kill himself. In his teens he saw doctors, therapists and took medication. But once he became an adult, there was little Judy could do to help.

    "I couldn't speak for him because he was over 18, so no matter what I did or who I called, hotlines, doctors, hospitals, his own therapist, he was over 18."

    In early May, a judge committed Daniel to Yale New Haven Hospital where he stayed for ten days. Judy says she was told by the hospital that Daniel was being discharged because insurance would no longer cover the stay. She couldn't afford to pay cash. She says her son was still hearing those voices.

    "The very night he was home he told me, he was very calm and clear, and he said I can't watch this anymore and I'm going to make a statement,” said Murray.

    A week and a half later, with a propane tank, gas can and lighter in his car, Daniel ended his life.

    Dr. Daniel Connor is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UConn Health Center. He says mental health treatment has long been underfunded, and he considers it a public health crisis.

    "We as a society in CT pay a price for not paying attention to the public health burden of early onset mental illness," said Connor.

    Connor is also co-chair of the Task Force on Behavioral Health Services for Young Adults. The task force was convened after the Sandy Hook shootings where 20 young children and six educators were gunned down by Adam Lanza. Revelations of Lanza’s behavioral health issues sparked calls for a hard look at how mental health is treated in CT.
    "I think the big issue that got accomplished is to bring the problem, the public health problem, the public health tragedy of adolescent and young adult mental illness, out from behind the covers and into the open," said Connor.

    On Tuesday the task force is releasing their final report. They are handing over 47 recommendations to the legislature ranging from identifying mental illness sooner to making sure there are enough health care providers to treat it.

    The 13 task force meetings brought together clinicians, treatment providers, state agencies and the insurance industry.

    "What we absolutely spoke about over and over again was the gaps if you're privately insured," said Patricia Rehmer, Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

    Rehmer says parents often find it difficult to connect all the necessary services to provide the care their children need.

    "People still are falling through the cracks because I don't think the array of services that is offered if you're privately insured are sufficient to meet the needs of everyone," said Rehmer.

    It’s a problem Judy Kelson Murray says she had with her son’s treatment from the very beginning.

    "I had trouble navigating the system from day one. The rules, the laws, you can't do this, you can do this," said Murray.

    Anne Melissa Dowling is Deputy Commissioner of the CT Insurance Department and served on the task force. Her agency has insurance companies at the table, and says between new laws and commitments from insurers, these companies are doing a better job at treating mental illness. She also says insurers currently provide more services than they are often given credit for.

    "I think there's a lot of frustration built up from decades of poor treatment, bad decisions," said Dowling. “And we really have to look at what's happening from 2014 going forward because so many things have changed. The laws are better, stronger, more supportive."

    Whether it's private or public coverage, this package of recommendations is complex and won't come cheap. The task force found that in 2012, an estimated $526 million was spent on behavioral health costs in CT just for people under the age of 25. Putting the task force's ideas into policy will cost far more, but many on the panel say without major changes, the costs will be even higher.

    "There's no way you're going to get out of this without some cost. Pay now or pay later. Your choice," said Connor.

    Now, it's up to legislators to choose what they think will work, if the state can afford it, and what demands they'll make of the insurance industry. Judy Kelson Murray plans on making sure lawmakers know about her family's struggle and loss. It's the promise she made to Daniel in the final hours of his life.

    "He will not die in vain and I will be his voice in a positive way and help to change the system."

    Click here for CT Insurance Department Resources.