Mental health advocates work daily to address the needs of those with behavioral health issues. One of those advocates is Micah Pearson, who was recently selected to serve on the national board of the National Alliance On Mental Illness, or NAMI.
On a recent episode of KRWG-TV’s “In Focus,” Pearson shared a personal reason he works as an advocate. He says he is a person living with Bipolar disorder — type one, rapid cycling with psychotic features — and he says he has also had an unfortunate experience with law enforcement, being placed in detention without access to treatment for an extended period of time.
“A lot of the work I do with our community and our organization as a whole is to prevent that from happening to other people,” says Pearson.
Pearson, who used to work as an information technology manager at The Washington Post, says he had a pretty good life. However, Pearson also says he was in an abusive marriage with his second wife, a relationship he says actually led to him getting an accurate diagnosis of his behavioral health issues.
“The fact of the matter was that I wasn’t engaged with psychiatric services before I got into that relationship,” Pearson says.
Pearson says his wife abused him physically and emotionally and stabbed him, which led to law enforcement showing up to his home one day.
“The police came and saw that I was 6 feet tall and she was 4-foot-11, and that I had a diagnosed mental health condition, and locked me up,” Pearson says.
He says he was in custody in Virginia for over two weeks. During his first week, he says he was kept in a holding cell where the lights were never turned off. He had a small window, and he was dressed in what he describes as a “smock” or “turtle suit.”
It was a difficult but illuminating time in that detention center that Pearson says was located just over a mile from NAMI national headquarters, which he didn’t know at the time.
During his time in detention, Pearson says he was denied a public defender. He says he eventually he was able to acquire an attorney with his parents’ help. The attorney successfully argued for his release and got an assault charge dropped, Pearson says. He pleaded guilty to another charge so he could get a waiving of probation that would allow him to leave Maryland and start over in Las Cruces, where his parents were living, so he could begin treatment for his behavioral health issues.
“I actually did end up with a criminal record solely so I could engage in mental health treatment,” says Pearson.
Once he moved to Las Cruces, Pearson started treatment and recovery, and eventually started to do community work and advocacy with NAMI. He says he built relationships with providers and people in the community, and that helps him in his daily work.
Pearson says the National Alliance On Mental Illness works on legislative advocacy, and provides education for families, peers and providers. He says the organization is active in Doña Ana County.
“We have family and peer education programs. We also have family and peer support groups, and at the legislative level we work with the county and the state on several different jail diversion programs,” Pearson says.
One of the unfortunate realities of the United States, Pearson says, is that the prisons are what he calls “the largest mental health facilities.” There are many people facing behavioral health issues in prisons.
“Conservative estimates are anywhere between 30 to 60 percent of any given detention center are people living with mental health conditions,” Pearson says.
In a recent story, KRWG News cited a 2006 study by the Department of Justice that found that 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners, and 45 percent of inmates in federal prisons have symptoms of serious mental illness.
Pearson says those with mental health issues should be treated as having health issues — instead of leaving the criminal justice system to deal with the issues.
“Mental health is only a criminal justice issue when we have failed them in every possible way,” says Pearson.
In Doña Ana County, Pearson says he has a good feeling about the “Stepping Up Initiative” that he says has brought together county officials, mental health providers, first responders, law enforcement, social workers and NAMI to figure out how to improve behavioral health services in the county and reduce the number of people in detention with mental illness.