TWIN FALLS • Bill Patterson stepped up to the rail on the Perrine Bridge. It wasn’t the first time he tried to jump — and it wouldn’t be the last.
Patterson climbed over the rail that night and let go, but something caught him.
“I remember hanging from the bridge and watching my shoe fall into the darkness. I was 19, but I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Patterson, now 44.
As he dangled from the bridge, he screamed at God.
“I was angry. I blamed God for saving me,” he said.
In 2012, Idaho had the eighth-highest suicide rate in the nation, 44 percent higher than the national average. Throughout May, professionals will provide mental health screenings and mental wellness education to spread awareness about mental illness and encourage those affected to seek treatment.
Nearly 9 million adults have suicidal thoughts, and, in 2013, 308 Idahoans took their own lives. Patterson tried to take his life many times by slitting his wrists or taking pills.
But the Perrine Bridge held a special power over him.
“I thought about jumping off the bridge at least a hundred times a day since I was 16,” he said.
For Patterson, the bridge was the ultimate way to escape his pain. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from mental and physical abuse as a child.
He’s not suicidal now.
“I took my power from the bridge,” Patterson said. “When it calls to me now, I know I don’t have to answer.”
‘Know Mental Health. No Stigma.’
Mental health professionals say one in four people are affected by mental illness, but few get treatment.
“There’s a tremendous amount of shame and stigma attached to mental illness,” Rich Neu, problem-solving courts manager for Fifth Judicial Court, said Thursday. “Most people have a really poor understanding of mental illness and don’t have the ability to recognize it.”
Curtis Johnson, a licensed clinician at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Behavioral Health office in Twin Falls, agrees.
“People in this community — we are from pioneer stock. We’re expected to pull ourselves up by our boot straps,” Johnson said. “We isolate ourselves. We don’t know how to reach out. We are taught to solve things on our own.”
But that isn’t an effective solution for mental illness, he said.
Society’s failure to recognize and treat mental illness has catapulted suicide to the 10th leading cause of death in American adults. It’s the second leading cause of death in adolescents in Idaho, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
In fiscal year 2013, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s behavioral health division served 13,389 people, up from 12,626 in 2009, the state reported. Yet while the patient count was rising, state mental health budgets were slashed from $69.5 million in 2009 to $58.6 million in 2013, and 35 state mental health workers were laid off in 2009 and 2010.
NAMI leads the way in bringing awareness to mental health and has proclaimed May as Mental Health Awareness Month. Groups across the Magic Valley are participating in hopes of eliminating the associated shame and stigma. “Know Mental Health. No Stigma” is their mantra.
“As a large state with about a third of its population living in rural or frontier areas, Idaho desperately needs effective, accessible mental health services and transportation to such services,” NAMI wrote in a 2009 report that gave the state a “D” for its mental health services and an “F” for basic measures, such as the number of programs delivering evidence-based practices, emergency room wait-times, and the quantity of psychiatric beds by setting.
Idaho Falls received the state’s first mental and behavioral health crisis center, which opened in December. By February, it had admitted 186 people.
The city, which competed with Boise and Coeur d’Alene, was chosen because of its “outstanding community and legislative support from the Idaho Falls area and surrounding eastern Idaho community,” the department reported.
State officials said Twin Falls was Idaho’s next-highest priority area. Because of the local need, the Division 5 Behavioral Health Board in Twin Falls is considering such a center independent of state funding.
‘Before Stage 4’
“When we think about cancer, heart disease or diabetes, we don’t wait for years to treat them. We start before Stage 4 — we begin with prevention,” Johnson said. “So why don’t we do the same for individuals who are dealing with potentially serious mental illness?”
For many, help doesn’t come until they find themselves in jail. That’s where Patterson met his friend Mark Olson.
Since he was a child, Olson, 34, knew there was something wrong with him.
“I knew the voices in my head weren’t normal,” he said. “They would talk to me and whisper my name.”
Olson’s and Patterson’s mental illnesses hampered their ability to succeed in school. Although intelligent and articulate, both were treated in school as if they were developmentally delayed.
Eventually, each dropped out and started self-medicating.
Patterson’s first drug of choice was alcohol, but after his third DUI, he turned to methamphetamine.
“Meth doesn’t show up in a breathalyzer,” he said Thursday during an interview at City Park.
Olson smiled and nodded.
“Meth just takes over,” he said. “People say ‘If you don’t use, you’ll be OK,’ and that’s not true.”
Both consider themselves lucky to have landed in jail in Twin Falls, where help was forced on them. Both qualified for mental health court, a program that works with Health and Welfare to treat the underlying cause of the crime.
“I’ve yet to meet an addict who didn’t have a mental condition of some kind before using,” Patterson said. “Not one said they were happy one day and an addict the next.”
Mental health court is similar to drug court, but participants must be guilty of a misdemeanor or felony and be diagnosed with a qualifying mental illness.
“We hope people seek out help before they find themselves in crisis,” Neu said.
Treatment saves lives, Johnson said, and help is out there.
“I have been clean and sober two and a half years — a miracle to me,” Patterson said. “Today, I’m able to live life and laugh and love, something I never thought possible.”