It took ten years for us to find a medication regime that not only works to help manage the symptoms of my son Ben’s schizophrenia, but that he is willing to take consistently. Ten years. Three of those have taken place after where our book, Ben Behind His Voices, leaves off – in what one reader calls “open-ended hope.” At that time, Spring of 2011, Ben was in a group home, stable for long enough to begin to piece his life back together, but still finding any possible opportunity to “cheek” his meds. He hated taking them, didn’t think he needed them, was discouraged by the side effects.
Finally, though, a few months after the book was published, Ben had a relapse (see Revolving Door post) and it took a lot of teamwork to get him back on the meds that work – teamwork that included Ben himself, and that’s why it was effective.
What helped Ben to agree? There is a different form of one of his meds that was much easier for Ben to swallow, literally, and that he swears has no side effects. This is a liquid suspension that has to be created by the pharmacist. Does it have fewer side effects? Who knows? But Ben believes that it does, and that’s what matters. He felt like – and was/is – a part of the decision that affects his life every day. The empowerment is definitely a contributing factor in Ben’s adherence to his medication regime.
And now, the main medication that Ben takes is no longer covered by Medicare. At least not in the formulation that Ben is willing to take, in the formulation that he can tolerate. In order to save money, they will not cover the extra ingredients needed to create the liquid version. Pills do not work. He cannot take them, physically or emotionally. Without this specific form of his meds, Ben could lose every single thing he has fought for so long to achieve. His job. His social life. His car.
The result of the stability of consistency with his treatment? Ben has continued to rebuild his future; in fact, he has far surpassed the modest hopes presented at the end of my book. Yes, despite the severity of his schizophrenia (many doctors told me that his case is “very severe”), Ben not only continues to attend community college, but now has held a job as a restaurant waiter for ten months! He is one of the best waiters there, the only one who has customers come in and request to sit in his section.
He, also miraculously, has started to have a social life. He has friends. And he is driving a used car that he saved very slowly for. It’s not fancy, but it has added to the fact that he is now feeling like a man. Though he now lives with us, he has earned the position of no longer feeling embarrassed by his life. Sure, he has to be home twice a day for us to supervise his medication, but it’s a small price for us all to pay, for the fact that he is feeling good about himself, realistically, for the first time in forever.
All it takes, as we know all too well from experience, is two days without his treatment and he will be back in the
Emergency Room, waiting for a bed in the psych unit. (This has happened eight times before. Trust us. Only two days to go from employable to certifiable).
So – I offered to pay for those extra ingredients myself. $80 per month. Not so bad – for me. But what if Ben were alone, no family to support him, living on the meager disability payments that are supposed to cover room and board but do not? Do you think he could find $80 per month? Can others in that situation? No. So the result would be: not taking the medication. It’s one step off a very steep cliff – and the fall is not pretty.
Unfortunately, my relief that $80 per month (challenging to find, but we’d manage) would solve our problem was short lived. The pharmacy called back to tell me that it is illegal to charge me for part of a medication. We have to pay for the whole medication – hundred of dollars per month. The only other choice? He has to take the pills, and Medicare will only cover one formulation of those: the ones that Ben finds impossible to swallow. We do NOT have hundreds of dollars available per month after bills are paid. Most families don’t. But what choice do we have? This is NOT FAIR – to Ben, or to us.
Why did Medicare make this coverage change? To “cut corners”, to “save a few bucks.” But, in doing so, they are risking – no, endangering – my son’s life.
How stupid and shortsighted can you get? While Ben is not violent by nature, others with untreated schizophrenia can be. Or their intentions are good, but the “voices” convince them that violent actions will lead to the good outcomes they desire.
How many shootings in movie theaters do we need to know that we need to provide treatment for mental illness? How many news stories of untreated schizophrenia (despite desperate families begging for hospital beds, enough days of help, enough support for staying in treatment and taking steps to recover one’s life and dignity) does it take to get smart? To provide support for a chance at recovery?
When mental illness goes untreated, lives are endangered. The lives of those living with the illness (who wind up in jail, homeless, or dead), and the lives of those they could hurt in the attempt to obey their hallucinations. Aurora: untreated mental illness. The attack and suicide of Senator Creigh Deeds’ son Gus: no beds available in psych units for the help they begged for. Virginia Tech shootings, the Unibomber’s plans, the list goes on and on.
Treatment could have helped them. Treatment could have prevented tragedy. Saving pennies is not the answer. Provide treatment, structure, community, and purpose: the four pillars of recovery I will explore in my next book, Ben Beyond His Voices.
Meds alone do not change lives challenged by mental illness. But, for many, they sure do help provide the stability that is needed to rebuild futures. Take this away from my son – or even change the routine – and his carefully structured rebuilt life can come tumbling down faster than you can say “tax break.” Too many federal and state budgets are cutting mental health funding to make the numbers look better. And look at what happens every single time you try that ploy. Lives are lost, and much more money is spent on the tragic results of this lack of foresight.
Prevention is cheaper than tragedy. Medicare, Don’t be stupid. Let my son, and others like him, have the treatment they deserve. Give him back the meds that work. Let him continue to be the taxpayer he has fought so hard to become.