Kyle Troutman: Mental health care resources lacking in Barry County

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Kyle Troutman

My mother is my hero for multiple reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is how she has handled -- and continues to handle -- challenges with her children that many moms have never had to deal with.

From her first-born (me) popping out with only one hand, to her last-born, my little sister Zoe, being diagnosed with atypical autism (pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified), which falls in the middle of the autism spectrum, my mother amazes me with her compassion, care and love -- not to mention her unbelievable patience.

When it comes to Zoe's behavior, she has two moods: Adorably lovable and unimaginably angry. She loves to give hugs, help cook, and help care for my niece and nephews. However, when the mood turns, she is prone to having episodes that include back-talking, screaming and even physical violence. And, when those episodes occur, she does not have the mental capacity to understand why those behaviors are negative.

At only 10 years old, her behaviors are mostly manageable. But if such behaviors continue, the future is unknown as to what might happen to her as an adult if an episode leads to her doing something she does not fully understand that also breaks the law.

Here in Barry County, Sheriff Mick Epperly said there are about 10 people with mental disabilities -- from autism to depression and so on -- that come through the jail on any given month.

The latest of these is 18-year-old Tyler Cairus, who is charged with two felonies for things he said he would do to children while standing near Monett Elementary School and speaking with school officials and police.

While the things he said are concerning and may even warrant the charges filed against him, I have a hard time believing he understands the ramifications of his words, and his being held in the county jail is an unfortunate circumstance brought on by a lack of state funding for mental health patients and a lack of resources for law enforcement in dealing with such cases.

People with autism suffer from life-long mental abnormalities that often require life-long care. People with the disorder commonly have problems with social interaction, communication skills, relationships and appropriate responses to any given environment.

For my sister, the disorder often manifests itself in what we call "meltdowns," which can include foul language, destructive behaviors like throwing things and, at times, physical aggression. They may begin with something as simple as my mother telling her it is time for bed, and she cannot fully comprehend that how she is handling that situation, via a "meltdown," is not proper behavior. However, when she sees other children acting in the same manner, she is apologetic to my mother for her past actions and sees how they are perceived by others.

But, in the heat of the moment, there's not much that can be done to slow her down.

Even if the charges are warranted and Cairus does understand what he said and why he is being held, jail is not the place for those with mental disabilities such as autism, as they do not have the life skills to handle being confined to such a small space, and with only 15 minutes per week of interactions with loved ones during visitation time.

Furthermore, Epperly said jail staff has not been trained on handling inmates with mental challenges, which further exacerbates the problem when an inmate engages in self-harming behaviors like head-banging or attempting suicide.

There is no easy way to rectify this problem, as state funding cuts to the Department of Mental Health mean less space for those in need, and law enforcement training for such circumstances are not easy to come by.

One possible solution, originally suggested by Cairus' mother, is implementing a program such as Clarity Care, a non-profit agency dedicated to providing services for those with special needs.

Instead of charging and jailing those with mental challenges, we as a community should be able to come together and help them function in society as best as possible.

Where state funding and state resources drop the ball, the community must come together and pick it up.

No matter what he has been accused of, Cairus has, or should have, the legal right to be placed in an environment that takes his disability into consideration.

Until then, he is like a blind person being asked to see, or a deaf person being asked to hear.

Kyle Troutman is the editor of the Cassville Democrat. He can be reached at editor@cassville-democrat.com, or 417-847-2610.