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Family tragedies spark activism

Published January 8, 2007 12:24 am

She says she would've been spared 'so much grief ' if her mentally ill kids had had proper health care
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You may not recognize her name, but you know Rose Carbine.

Newspaper headlines offer glimpses of her family tragedy: On Jan. 2, 2004, her oldest daughter, Wendy, suffered a psychotic break and strangled Carbine's 2 1/2 -year-old granddaughter outside Moab.

A year later, on Christmas, her 27-year-old son, Shane, attempted suicide. Two weeks ago, her youngest, 23-year-old Christopher, was shot in the arm by Millard County deputies following a police chase in which he allegedly brandished a gun.

Carbine has resisted speaking of her immeasurable losses, sharing details only with a monthly support group she runs for a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). But frustrated by the absence of affordable health care for Utah's uninsured mentally ill, the Sandy woman - who likes to joke she's 60 going on 85 - is going public.

Had her adult children been able to get the medical attention they needed, the family may have been spared "so much grief," said Carbine. She hopes to sway lawmakers to fix the system.

"I'm the face of a thousand people behind me just crying for help," she said.

'People are falling

through the cracks'

Carbine's troubles started in 2004 with a federal policy change that barred states from using savings from their Medicaid programs to pay for mental health services for the working poor. Back then, low-income advocates warned that as many as 4,300 chronically mentally ill Utahns, including 800 children, would lose care from public clinics.

Many of those patients could lose their ability to function and risk hospitalization, overburdening the jails and juvenile detention system, advocates said.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has proposed restoring $2.3 million to provide therapy for 2,904 indigent adults and children. But absent proof that the money would improve lives, lawmakers rejected a similar spending plan last year, agreeing only to a one-time $1 million fix.

No effort has been made by state mental health officials to track this population.

But if Carbine's experience is any indication, "people are falling through the cracks," said Sherri Wittwer, director of NAMI-Utah. "Unless there's a horrible tragedy, someone hurts themselves, or someone else, they can't access services."

'On their own'

A single mother and 25-year special education teacher at Jordan School District, Carbine said she has always been "an advocate for the underdog," but never expected to "advocate for my own children."

Carbine has four kids from two separate marriages. Three were diagnosed with mental illnesses in their teens and early 20s.

"We're an All-American, hard-working family. We did the piano and soccer lessons like everyone else," she said. "My kids were all in gifted programs, scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests."

The family took each diagnosis - bipolar disorder, schizoeffective disorder and depression - in stride. Thanks to medical advances, Carbine's children thrived as long as they got treatment.

She was able to insure them under her employer's health plan until they turned 26. But then they were "on their own," hard-pressed to find an insurer they could afford or that would accept them.

The first, Wendy, was dropped from coverage shortly after the Medicaid rule change went into effect, making regular visits with her psychiatrist and managing her medications a hardship.

For two years, Wendy's health declined and she grew progressively unstable. Fearing for her daughter and her daughter's baby girl, Sarah Pollyanne Bullock, Carbine fought to have Wendy committed to a psychiatric facility. But with the aid of an attorney, Wendy freed herself.

Six weeks later, Wendy killed Sarah and disfigured herself in a failed suicide attempt.

Worth saving

Rather than rehash the past, Carbine likes to focus on her daughter's recovery.

Wendy was committed to the Utah State Hospital, where she "is working through her illness and grief," working odd jobs and serving as an ombudsman, voicing patient grievances to hospital staff.

"Her daughter was the love of her life. There were two victims," said Carbine. "The irony is now she is finally getting the help she needed."

The same goes for Carbine's sons, who followed a similar trajectory after losing their health coverage.

Carbine fought to enroll them in Medicaid or find other charitable mental health services. But getting help took a suicide attempt for Shane, and for Christopher, an arrest.

Shane hooked into Medicaid only after an attempted overdose landed him in the hospital for an extended period.

"They had to put him in a coma to treat him," said Carbine. "He's a bright, incredible young man and worth saving. He didn't do anything wrong. He's just ill."

Christopher was treated for injuries following the Dec. 23 shooting and now receives mental health treatment in jail.

Counting the costs

In 2005, nearly 1,300 people deemed "seriously and persistently mentally ill" were booked into Salt Lake County Metro jail. To incarcerate, assess and treat this population would cost the county more than $7.3 million.

That's just one jail system, and doesn't account for the human costs, said Wittwer. "What a difference it would make, for the individual, the family and the community, if we intervened earlier."

About a month prior to the shooting, Christopher's friends tried to get him admitted to a hospital, but without insurance "they wouldn't keep him," said Carbine. "They said, 'He's not a threat to himself or others.' "

On Dec. 5, Christopher was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm.

His father bailed him out, and two days before Christmas, he was chased and shot by police.

"He loves the guitar and asked the paramedics to please do whatever they could so that he can keep playing," said Carbine. "I might not have been able to reach my own children. But maybe I can help others reach theirs."





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