Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A tragic illustration of deficiencies in mental health care in our country

Danny Watt once leapt from a moving train. He hurtled through the windshield of a rolling car. Got pummeled by drug dealers. Overdosed. Swallowed rat poison. Tried to hang himself.

In his tumultuous 21 years, Danny Watt danced with death in the most amazing, horrible ways. In the end, two college students spotted him facedown in the cold, murky water of the C&O Canal one afternoon in April 2008. The medical examiner said Danny had drowned.

It was an end that Danny's parents, Bobby and Mary Watt of Reston, had struggled to stave off for many years. But after refinancing their house three times to put their son in every substance abuse and mental health program imaginable, after going to countless meetings and hearings and hospitals and jails, after badgering every possible person in Fairfax County who might help them, they could not save Danny.

"We just went through so much for so long," said Mary Watt, breaking into tears. "We tried and tried for so many years, fighting, only to lose."

Danny Watt was a walking symbol of a phenomenon called co-occurring disorders, or dual diagnosis, which is estimated to affect 7 million adults in the United States.

These people are both seriously mentally ill and abusing drugs or alcohol. About half of all adults who are seriously mentally ill are also thought to be addicted. The mental health community calls this "self-medication." The federal government estimates that 90 percent of people with co-occurring disorders do not get the treatment they need.