Hadley Johnson of St. Joseph died April 29, 2019. She was just 17 years old when she took her own life.
Hopefully, Herald-Palladium readers took note of her obituary that appeared in this paper a few days later. I found it to be a poignant portrayal of one family’s concern with the issues of mental health and suicide. I believe our community has been well served because Hadley’s parents, as they wrote in the obituary, chose not to “suffer in silence.”
No doubt, in recent years progress has been made statewide and in our area in addressing mental health issues. Nonetheless, the Johnsons' experiences as expressed in the obituary with “the inaccessibility of timely care, adequate mental health facilities and the financial crises imposed on so many families in trying to find help” stand as a stark reminder to us all that much still remains to be done.
This is strikingly similar to the experiences related by Lea Minalga on the Multidimensional Family Therapy website (mdft.org) as she sought help for her son: "Years ago when my adolescent son was struggling with heroin addiction, all I knew to do was place him in inpatient residential treatment (time and time again) where we spent hundreds upon thousands of dollars trying to save him. Most of his 20 rehabs offered the 12-step program, group counseling and once-a-week individual sessions (if at all) for my teen’s serious and life-threatening addiction. Something always seemed to be ‘missing’ in Justin’s treatment plans for he kept relapsing.”
While drug addiction was not indicated in Hadley’s life, parents of loved ones dealing with mental health and/or substance abuse issues do experience the same fears, frustrations and stigma. Furthermore, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), mental health disorders contribute to a disposition for drug abuse, and drug abuse is a risk factor for mental health disorders. This is not uncommon. Persuasive evidence informs us that the co-occurrence of mental disorders with drug abuse is prevalent and the numbers across our nation are increasing significantly.
Individuals as well as their families who live with this co-occurring condition are caught in a vicious cycle that can be as frightening as it is frustrating. As David Sheff has written in his book "Clean," “It’s no surprise that a person who spends his life in the turmoil and pain of mental illness and who can’t fully comprehend the consequences of his actions because of that illness, will find his way to drugs. It’s understandable that he’ll use drugs to both self-medicate and escape.” In the case of Hadley Johnson, her tragic escape from mental illness took the form of suicide.
Since mental health and/or substance abuse disorders know no discrimination, Hadley Johnson’s obituary, as well as Sheff’s statement, could be descriptive of our own sons or daughters as well. For many of those reading this article, they already are. Clearly, for the sake of countless other 17-year-olds in our community, the time to act is now.
What needs to be done? First of all, sit for a moment in the pew with the Johnsons. Comprehend the depth of their frustration. If you have already been, or currently are, in that pew, share your experiences as well. I am convinced the following picture will emerge: There is an urgent need in our community for a wholistic, integrated “under one roof” approach for the treatment of mental health and substance abuse issues that involves parents and concerned significant others as part of the treatment plan. Adequate insurance is essential. Under this one roof, needs for medical care, psychiatric care, housing, employment, family welfare, and legal assistance are also addressed and coordinated.
Such an approach would provide the treatment and resources needed by those who must live with mental health and substance abuse disorders. It would allow Southwest Michigan to become a light and a voice for the whole state of Michigan. Far more important, it would provide what one researcher has called “an essential aspect of the process of recovery” that was so very desperately needed by Hadley Johnson and her family. That aspect is hope.
Tom Batsky is a retired minister at Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Joseph.