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The person vs. the problem

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Every person is important, including the mentally ill

By Stevie Lowery

There are some stories that just need to be told.

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But, more often than not, we aren’t brave enough to tell them.

We worry about our reputations. We stress about what others might think.

So, we keep quiet while the story inside of us flares up like a burning ulcer.

But, there are those rare occasions when people put their fears and reputations aside to tell a story that might help others.

Which brings me to the day April and Tammy Lawson walked into my office.

I could tell by their body language that they were slightly nervous, which is understandable. They had a very difficult story to tell. A story of immense pain, anguish and heartache. A story that is probably much more common than most of us even realize.

They told me the story of their loved one, 23-year-old David Ray Clarkson Jr., who committed suicide after a lifetime of suffering from mental illness. He was diagnosed as being bipolar and schizophrenic, and was haunted by imaginary people and voices. (See story on page A1.)

Tammy Lawson’s voice trembled and her eyes welled up with tears as she spoke to me about her son.

“You really don’t understand the illness until you live with somebody who has it,” she said. “Mental illness is like a cancer of the brain. It takes over the mind.”

Tammy and her daughter, April, opened up to me about Clarkson’s illness and the constant struggle they experienced in getting him the help that he so desperately needed. Clarkson, like many people who suffer from mental illness, tried to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to cope with his delusions. In turn, that led to him breaking the law, which just magnified his problems. Eventually, Clarkson sought counseling and was prescribed medication, which helped him. But, his battle with mental illness was relentless. On May 30, 2012, Clarkson was sent to Eastern State Hospital in Lexington and was labeled “high risk” for suicide. However, after being assessed, he was sent home in a taxi. Three days later, he committed suicide. Understandably, Clarkson’s family believes if he had been admitted to Eastern State Hospital that night, he would still be alive today.

They are angry.

They are confused.

They are heartbroken.

And, who can blame them. Wouldn’t we all be?

Clarkson’s story is a painful example of the challenges people with mental illness face in this state and country. And, sadly, so many of those people end up behind bars instead of in a treatment facility where they truly belong. Our society focuses so much of its efforts on law enforcement, but a great deal of that focus (and money) should be directed toward mental health services.

As a society, we are so quick to point our fingers at people like Clarkson and assume they are just bad people… drug addicts… menaces to society.

But, what we must all remind ourselves is that every person is important.

David Ray Clarkson Jr., was important.

His life had purpose. He had potential. And he was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend.

He was a person and his life had value. He was not just a problem.

I admire his mother and sister for speaking so openly to me about their tragedy. It’s a tragedy other families have experienced, and unfortunately will continue to experience in the future. My only hope is that our society and our government will begin to address the problems facing the mentally ill.

It’s time that all of us begin to see the “person” and not just the “problem.”