Rest In Peace: Gene Atkinson III

Rest In Peace: Gene Atkinson III

I wrote earlier about how it’s hard for men to talk about their feelings. Men, we really need to because it’s literally killing us.

Earlier this week, former NFL player and Notre Dame Superstar, Gene Atkinson III passed away after a long battle with guilt and depression. He has just turned 27. While no one has formerly said how he died, it is widely speculated that he committed suicide just as his twin brother Josh had done on Christmas Day last year.

The brothers’ father was former NFL player and Super Bowl champion George Atkinson II, but the brothers were raised by their mother who has been described as a schizophrenic who self-medicated with crack cocaine. The brothers’ home life was unstable and they moved often due to their mother getting evicted for damaging walls or writing on them.

I can only imagine what life was like for these two young men being raised by an untreated, mentally ill, drug addicted mother.

When they were 13 their father took custody of them and gave them the stability and discipline that they lacked. They excelled. Both brothers would go on to play football for Notre Dame University and Gene went on to play briefly in the NFL.

Sadly, their mother died in 2018 from complications of Crohns disease. Both brothers had a hand in the decision to pull the plug on her life. This heartbreaking decision caused Josh Atkinson to feel tremendous grief and months later, on December 25th, he committed suicide.

Gene felt guilty over not being able to help his brother, calling it the greatest pain and suffering he ever felt. He too began to suffer deep feelings of depression and having suicidal thoughts. He was even hospitalized for a brief period after trying to harm himself.

In October of this year, Gene wrote an open letter about his struggle with depression and grief in hopes that it would help others reach out and talk about their pain instead of burying it and suffering with it alone.

Gene wrote that thinking about his then 2-year daughter motivated him to seek help and to keep fighting. He did however admit that he was still struggling and worried about how he would cope with the upcoming holiday season.

Unfortunately, it appears as though Gene Atkinson III, like his brother Josh, lost his hard fought battle with depression.

Men. We are not weak if we talk about our feelings. We are not weak if we cry. We are not weak if we ask for help. It takes a lot for us to open up. Doing so makes us strong!!!

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Many Police Shootings Involve The Mentally Ill

Sinuon Pream is pictured in this undated photo. The 37-year-old  mentally ill woman was shot and killed by Long Beach police in January 2017.

Last weekend when I pulled into my driveway I saw an alarming, but not totally unusual sight. My next door neighbor who suffers from a mental illness, was pacing back and forth between my driveway and his, yelling and swearing at the top of his lungs.

I could barely make out what he was yelling about, but I heard a few words that made me think he was venting about some type of unresolved childhood traumas and was clearly off his medications and in a manic state.

He was perspiring profusely and didn’t even acknowledge me when I pulled into the driveway and got out of my car. I didn’t attempt to engage or redirect him because he appeared agitated so I quickly went inside of my house.

For the next hour or so I could hear him yelling. Periodically I looked out of the window and watched him walk back and forth as if he were having an argument with someone who wasn’t there. In the past some of our other neighbors have called the police on him for disturbing the peace and I was hoping that none of them would call the police this time, because as scary and intimidating as this behavior could appear, he was harmless. However, if the police got involved, depending on their approach, I was unsure of how he would react and what the outcome of that interaction would be.

In the best case scenario, the police would come, identify him as a mentally ill individual  and transport him to the mental health hospital which is less than five miles from where we live. Another outcome would be that they would arrest him as they had done numerous times before when he was off of his medication and causing a scene. The worse, and yet what I feared to be a highly likely outcome would be that they would see his manic and agitated behavior as a sign of aggression and use force, perhaps even deadly force on him.

Thankfully, after close to 2 hours of yelling and pacing, he went back in the house and all was quiet again. No one had called the police. No one had gotten hurt.

I woke up the next morning to hear on the news that in the next county over, a mentally ill man was shot and killed by a law enforcement officer after his family called seeking help for him.

Deadly Force and The Mentally Ill

I wrote an article a few years ago about mentally ill individuals and deadly police encounters. Unfortunately, individuals with a mental illness make up a disproportionate number of people stopped, arrested and killed by law enforcement officers.  Research suggests that approximately 25% of the individuals that law enforcement officers encounter have a severe mental illness.

Individuals with a mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during encounters with law enforcement compared to the general population.  Some statistics estimate that nearly half of all law enforcement deathly force incidents involve an individual with a severe mental illness.

That is why I was so afraid to call the police to ask for help with my neighbor that night. It’s sad that so many people who need help end up arrested or getting killed by those asked to help them.

Law enforcement officers need to undergo intensive and ongoing training in dealing with mentally ill and unstable individuals and to not always resort to deadly force during these often tense, unpredictable and scary encounters. They could first attempt nonlethal force, verbal de-escalation or calling for more assistance before reaching for their fire arm.

Communities can also increase assess to treatment programs so that individuals are less likely to go untreated and hopefully decrease their chances of having encounters with law enforcement.

When you look into it, the number of mentally ill people involved in deathly police shootings is staggering. No family who calls the police asking for a well-being check on their mentally ill loved one should worry that he or she will be shot and killed by those who are supposed to protect and serve. long-beach-shooting-sinuon-pream-police-1

“I’m Good Bro”: Men and Mental Health

“I’m Good Bro”: Men and Mental Health

Like most people, there have been times in my life where I was really down, even depressed. Things in my life just weren’t going the way I wanted them to go and most often for me, that boiled down to my love life.

I remember one time in particular when I was going through a break up and was battling anxiety and depression to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on much nor could I eat or sleep much at all. It felt like the emotional pain would never go away and I just continued to isolate myself and ruminate on my problems more and more.

Finally, my best friend called me and asked me if I were okay. My response was, “I’m good bro.”

I’m good bro? Why in the hell did I say that when I clearly wasn’t good. As a matter of fact, I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I had lost several pounds from not eating, laid in bed praying for sleep to take the pain away, but the anxiety kept me awake with racing thoughts and fear. I was in pretty bad shape, yet my response was, I’m good bro.

Even then I wondered, why did I say that? Why didn’t I just tell him what was going on with me? The answer was because I didn’t want to appear weak. I didn’t want to appear emasculated. I didn’t want to burden anyone. I didn’t want anyone, especially another man to know that I was depressed.  I felt shame in that. That shame kept me from asking for help. It nearly killed me.

From my experience, depression has a way of sneaking in, unassuming and nonthreatening. It has a way of making you feel comfortable with it, almost like an old friend or warm blanket, until it starts to suffocate you. Only then do most people realize that they are in danger and need help. Sadly, too many people realize it too late and pay the ultimate price.

Still as I was getting suffocated by depression, I muttered, “I’m good bro”, and effectively rejected any help my friend could have offered.

As a mental health professional, what I have learned over the years is that most men who suffer from anxiety, depression and stress will also respond “I’m good bro” when they really aren’t.

Men don’t like to talk about their feelings and are slow to ask for help. For many men it takes thoughts of suicide to compel them to reach out for help which usually means they have been suffering alone for quite a while.

While these men are suffering and attempting to “hold it together”, their suffering not only has negatively affects on them, but also on their work performance, parenting ability and relationships in general.

Men like to think of depression and anxiety as problems women have, but men and women both suffer from these common problems. It may look differently in men than it does in women as men tend to isolate themselves more, become less motivated, become angry, aggressive or turn to drugs and alcohol more.

Reasons Men Don’t Talk About Their Mental Health

There are many reasons men don’t talk about their mental health issues, but according to one study, the top reasons are:

  • ‘I’ve learnt to deal with it’ (40%)
  • ‘I don’t wish to be a burden to anyone’ (36%)
  • ‘I’m too embarrassed’ (29%)
  • ‘There’s negative stigma around this type of thing’ (20%)
  • ‘I don’t want to admit I need support’ (17%)
  • ‘I don’t want to appear weak’ (16%)
  • ‘I have no one to talk to’ (14%)

When men do want to talk about their feelings, most report that they would prefer to talk to their romantic partner, but not everyone has a romantic partner and even those who do may be uncomfortable feeling vulnerable. That’s why it is important that men feel comfortable asking for professional help if needed.

In order for us to get men to feel comfortable seeking help, it’s important that we normalize men’s mental health problems much in the way that we have normalized treatment for erectile dysfunction problems. When we do this we remove the stigma surrounding men’s mental health problems. By helping men feel comfortable talking about their thoughts and feelings, we not only positively impact their lives, but the lives of everyone around them.

Parents Denial of Their Child’s Mental Health Issues Doesn’t Make It Go Away

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

ImageThe more family sessions I do, the more concerned I become at the astonishing number of parents who are in denial of their child’s mental health issues.

Recently I was dealing with a teenage girl referred to me by her mother because she was scared to be by herself, “acting weird”, talking and laughing to herself.

After meeting with the girl twice I got her to tell me some information she had ever told anyone else. She was hearing voices and having extreme paranoid delusions of someone putting “voodoo” on her and making her do things against her will.

After further sessions and gathering more collateral information from her mom and sister, I diagnosed the girl with a psychotic disorder, with a rule out of paranoid schizophrenia.  I referred the mom to a local psychiatrist so the young lady could be evaluated further and the mom was extremely hesitant. She…

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Why Are There More Suicides In Jails Than In Prisons?

Why Are There More Suicides In Jails Than In Prisons?

Suicide prevention of  inmates has been the main focus of my job for the last five years. It is such an important topic because in the United States suicide is the leading cause of death to inmates in jail.

This gets little attention because when most people think about inmates committing suicides, they tend to think about inmates in prison and for obvious reasons:

  • Prisons are usually bigger and overcrowded
  • Inmates in prison are usually there for more violent/serious crimes than inmates in jail
  • Inmate in prison are usually serving longer sentences, sometimes life sentences

While those reasons are valid points, the facts are that inmates in jail are more at risk of suicide than inmates in prison. This is important to know because family members are often shocked when their jailed loved one commits suicide often before they have even been to trial.

One reason jails have a higher suicide rate (46 per 100,000) than prisons (15 per 100,00) is that people who enter jail often face a first-time “shock of confinement” situation. They are suddenly removed from their daily lives, their support system, stripped of their job, housing, and basic sense of normalcy.

Also for some there is the fear of the unknown and perceived lack of control over the future that causes extreme anxiety and depression. They’re not sure how long they will be incarcerated or if their loved ones will stand by them. That isolation from their family and significant others can cause tremendous anguish for many inmates.

Many have a distrust of an authoritarian environment. They may fear for their safety, of being assaulted physically and/or sexually.  The living conditions and perceived dehumanizing aspects of incarceration are also difficult for many inmates to accumulate to. Some have to strip search in front of officers, are housed with inmates they would never associate with in the outside world and have to deal with the sleeping, showering and using the bathroom in not so private settings.

Depending on the person and the crime, many inmates experience a great sense of shame about being incarcerated. I have met doctors, law enforcement officers, pastors and prominent members of society who got arrested for everything from domestic violence, DUI to child molestation and stalking charges. They all had a very hard time dealing with not only being in jail, but with the affects it had on their social status.

Jails Usually Don’t Know Who They Are Getting

Jails get people right out of their personal lives, meaning that they get severe alcoholics and drug addicts who end up going through excruciating detoxes that sometimes end with them taking their own lives. They get chronically mentally ill individuals who may be off their medication or highly suicidal. They get people in the middle of a divorce or custody battle that they can’t fight from behind bars. Jail staff may not have a clue about these issues until the inmate starts exhibiting symptoms or attempts suicide.

Because jails are getting people right off the streets, they face a higher risk of inmates dying from drug and alcohol related complications as well.

By the time these inmates are sent to prison, the prison staff already have a detailed history of the inmate from the jail. Inmates have been detoxed and ideally mentally ill inmates have been stabilized on medication.  Also, inmates usually have acclimated to being incarcerated and come to terms with what’s ahead for them.

Many inmates who commit suicide do so before they have even been convicted. They’ve already thought of the worse case scenarios, i.e., “My wife is going to leave me”; “I’m going to get beat to death by other inmates”; “I’m gong to get raped”; “I’m going to prison forever” and decided that death was the better alternative.

The rise of inmate suicides is also partially due to the increased number of mentally ill inmates being jailed. Jails have become the new de facto mental health institutions, but they simply are not equipped to handle inmates with serious mental illnesses and other behavioral factors. These inmates are not only at a higher risk of committing suicide, but are at higher risk of being assaulted, raped and taking advantage of by other inmates. They are also more likely to end up in disciplinary confinement situations due to their behavior and lack of understand or following rules. 

It is equally unfair to severely mentally ill inmates and corrections officers who aren’t adequately trained to deal with them.

Educating jail staff on recognizing signs and symptoms of mental health problems to include signs that an inmate may be suicidal is invaluable. Also, addressing a jail culture that may be toxic or conducive to worsening mental health symptoms and increasing the likelihood that an inmate will attempt suicide is crucial.

Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with numerous inmate suicides and attempted suicides.  We never want to lose an inmate to an untimely death, especially one that could have been avoided, no matter if it’s an assault, a medical condition or suicide.

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Interview With A Hit Man

In my line of profession, I often talk to people who have committed horrendous crimes, including murder. It is not uncommon for me to have spoken to half of dozen people each day who have been convicted of killing someone else. It is rare, however, for me to speak with someone who has been convicted of killing multiple people. A serial killer if you will, but this man, Jose Martinez is a dangerous Hit Man.

I won’t say more as I don’t want to be in violation of his HIPPA rights or violate any other codes of ethic, so here’s a public video showing an interview with Mr. Jose Martinez.

Violence And The Mentally Ill

Violence And The Mentally Ill

Many people believe that all violent, sadistic and dangerous people in our society are mentally ill, thus coming to the conclusion that mentally ill people are dangerous.

The truth is, people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Only about 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals with a serious mental illness.

Many movies depict violent characters as being mentally ill and often the news continuously replays stories of the rare occurrences when someone with a mental illness acted out in violence. We start to associate mental illness with violence.

One of society’s biggest fears are acts of violence that are senseless, random, unprovoked and unpredictable and thanks to the media, we often associate this with mental illness. We somehow take more comfort in knowing a man was stabbed to death walking down the street during a robbery than if he was stabbed to death walking down the street for no apparent reason.

This stigmatization is just one of many things people with a mental illness face. I have often heard people say they were afraid of a suicidal individual or someone who self-injured themselves: “If they would do that to themselves, what do you think they would do to me?” The fact is, most suicidal and self-harming individuals would rather hurt themselves before they would hurt anyone else.

While it is rare, people with mental illnesses, just like anyone else in the general population, can act out in violence. Individuals who have a substance abuse disorder alone are much more likely to become violent than the general public, including those individuals who have a mental illness alone or an associated substance abuse disorder.

However, when it comes to dealing with mental illness, individuals who abuse substances, have a co-occurring mental disorder and are non-compliant with their medication are at higher risk of committing violence.

Even with the combination of substance abuse and non-medication compliance, the general public are not at high risk of being attacked by someone with a mental illness. People who are in close relationship with these individuals such as family and friends, especially if they have troubled relationships and/or are financial dependence are more likely to become victims of violence.

Some of the most predictive variables for violence untreated psychotic symptoms to include suspicion/paranoia, hostility, severe hallucinations and poor insight into their delusions and the overall mental illness.

A Tragic Example

I recently spoke to a young man who appears to have had his first psychotic episode, at-least as far as he knows. He’s in his early twenties and at the prime age for the onset of many psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia.

One day last week he was home watching YouTube videos and became paranoid that someone was going to come and rape his mother. Alarmed and frightened, he armed himself, first with a shotgun, but discovering the shot gun was not operational, he armed himself with a handgun. He proceeded to guard the house from what he thought were real threats to his mother, some mysterious intruder/rapist. What happened next rocked the whole community.

At some point, his mother came downstairs and he shot her twice in the head. He then shot their dog twice in the head as well before setting the house on fire and rowing a boat across a lake. According to the people who were at that house, he came out of the boat shirtless, walking slowly and looking like Jason from Friday the 13th.  He was chased away by the homeowner and ran off into the woods. Soon after he turned himself into authorities and the totality of his behavior was brought to light. When the authorities went to his burned down home they found the charred body of his mother and their dog.

I have worked with a lot of individuals who were experiencing their first psychotic episodes, but I have never spoken to someone so young that went from apparently “normal” to acting out so violently in response to paranoid delusions and hallucinations.

Most individuals, who develop a psychotic disorder or any mental illness for the most part, start off with small signs and symptoms that if left untreated, can lead to worsening symptoms and rarely horrible things like suicide or violence. Usually this takes several months to years to decompensate to this level. It’s very rare for someone’s first psychotic episode to turn out so violent, causing death and destruction.

Thankfully, situations like that are extremely rare.

Warning Signs

Some warning signs to look out for when dealing with anyone, not just someone with a mental illness include:

  • Pacing
  • Psychomotor Agitation (i.e., leg bouncing rapidly)
  • Combative posturing (i.e., fist balled up)
  • Paranoid or threatening remarks
  • Irritability
  • Talking to self in language that includes violence or paranoia

If you see these behaviors, it may or may not mean that the person has a mental illness, but these are signs that someone is possibly in a volatile state. Stay calm, give them space, avoid intimidating eye contact.

If you have to deal with the person because they are a friend, family member or even a customer in your place of business, use a calm/soothing voice, helpful attitude, avoid loud noises, remove potentially dangerous objects and attempt to give positive reinforcement until you can either get help or get out of the situation.

We all probably know someone with a mental health problem and many of us don’t even know it because most individuals with mental health problems are productive members of our community.

When we destigmatize the violence associated with being mentally ill, we make it easier for those individuals to seek treatment and to talk about it with their family and friends instead of hiding it out of fear or shame.