Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

The bipolar activist wants to cure OC's problem with the homeless who are mentally ill

Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

"I've been treated rough by the police. Not Kelly Thomas rough, but rough enough."

The slender redhead surveys her audience, whose attention is rapt.

"Yes, I'm mentally ill," Lisa Becker says. "Joy is extreme joy. Pain is extreme pain. I have crazy, out-of-control feelings. I don't sleep much; I'm constantly thinking about the past. I have been dangerous and out of control. I suffer every day. I have nightmarish imaginings. There's a war going on in here." She taps her head.

Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Riley Kern
Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action
Riley Kern
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action

At the back of the room, her father, Dale, wipes his face.

"But it's controllable," she continues. "It's not all a sad story."

She looks at the audience and decides to take the tension down a notch. "I like to start with a joke. So this cop pulls over a guy and says, 'Your eyes look bloodshot—have you been drinking?' The driver says, 'Your eyes look glazed. Have you been eating doughnuts?'"

The crowd groans but gets the joke; every member of the audience is a cop.

They are listening to Becker because it's part of the program at Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which is held each month at the Orange County Sheriff's Department on Katella Avenue in Orange, a stone's throw from the Honda Center and Angel Stadium. Walking through the parking lot to the conference rooms, you pass an armored truck and bomb-demolition vehicle. The crack of firing on the pistol range rings out. In this unlikely setting, minds are being changed in how law-enforcement personnel see the mentally ill people they have contact with nearly every working day.

Becker doesn't look mentally ill. She's well-put-together in a smart pantsuit, her hair a moderate but flattering length. But the story she tells will be familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of mental illness, 5150s (police jargon for involuntary institutionalization), drug and alcohol dependency, county jail, and the streets of Orange County.

"I've been violent, screaming at cars and people, breaking bottles," Becker says. She used to wander into parks to rob homeless people and once was nearly beaten up by a large, female transient who didn't appreciate being targeted. "I lived in my car and walked the streets all night," she adds. "I stole an American flag and drove around town with it. I'd get my car out of impound, then abandon it. It finally got donated to the city of Costa Mesa when they towed it away. I've never been Tased, but I've been thrown on the sidewalk and slammed against the hood of a cop car."

Yet this same woman is now helping Orange County law enforcement—as well as future lawyers, social workers and others—understand mental illness from the inside out. "I'm not a bad person," she explains. "I was just a sick person doing bad things."

Becker also has her own, very ad hoc charity that she self-funds (no foundation, no website, no donations), Project Q-Tip. She hands out to Orange County's homeless people hundreds of little baggies with the cotton ear cleaner, a mint and referrals to service organizations.

Kelly Thomas was killed in July 2011 by six Fullerton police officers who apparently had little idea of how to interact with the schizophrenic man. Kelly's father, Ron, himself a former OC sheriff's deputy, applauds the effort behind CIT. "It's invaluable to get the perspective of someone who's mentally ill or has been homeless," he argues. "There's some cops you just can't change. But for most, it would help. Once you understand it's the disease, not the person, you won't overreact. It could prevent what happened to Kelly. And once they go through the training, you can hold them accountable."

* * *

The day she cracks the cops-eat-doughnuts joke, Becker is speaking on the "consumer panel" at a CIT seminar. A spokesperson explains that "consumers" is the politically correct way of referring to people with mental illness, those considered to be "consumers" of mental-health services. The training program, run by Golden West College, covers many topics, from understanding types of mental illness to "suicide by cop." There are about 25 officers in attendance, including a burly, bearded biker and six women.

The speakers include Frank Woodard, an attorney and realtor; Scott, a former police officer who preferred to not be identified by his last name; and Becker. Each has a story.

Woodard delivers a number of disturbing statistics. In 2009, 20 percent of prison inmates were found to have severe mental illness. Neuropsychiatric ailments such as mood and thought disorders account for 45 percent of disabilities in people from ages 16 to 25.

This provides a natural segue to the story of Woodard's son, a high-school student who worked at Carl's Jr. Diagnosed as schizophrenic on his 17th birthday, later that year, he had his skull cracked in an unsolved beating. For a while, he didn't know who or where he was. "An Anaheim officer talked to my son for an hour after his injury and got him to a hospital," Woodard says. "He told me, 'I know it's not your son; it's his disease.'"

Now 26, Woodard's son has had seven hospitalizations. "We've had the police at my home more times that I can count," he says. The young man is starting to read more, using his computer and trying to quit smoking (he's gone from four packs per day to one). He still laughs uncontrollably, which makes people uncomfortable, Woodard says. Still, he's become compliant with his medication. "He's stable; with schizophrenia, that's all you can expect. It's truly a day at a time."

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16 comments
coastx
coastx

Severe magnesium deficiency will produce the same behavior.

joyatorres1
joyatorres1

I am a paranoid schizophrenia. with major depression and I am a Kelly Thomas and I offended by those whom create dilution of all cops are bad...there are a few and being homeless for 12 years before MHSA act I was a true Kelly thomas and now I am his voice and saddened by this article use a true person such as myself or other whom are still out there...:  :( 

Dennis210
Dennis210

133.000 people unemployed in Orange County California

10.7 percent unemployment rate in Costa Mesa equals NO NEW JOB GROWTH.

I have been applying for jobs for the past 4 years and have not heard nearly a thing from any employers and they are still laying people off in order to cut costs.

70 more people just lost thier jobs in Costa Mesa California yesterday when the City handed them their firing slips before Christmas, after they elected Republinut Jim Righeimer to the Mayorship position, I voted against him for his lost initiative Measure V that lost by a 10 to one margin at the polls so why is that fatso in the mayorship when no one likes him, to outsource the jobs that have cost the county millions.that they could have invested but instead squandered away on useless projects.

We the citizens will not work with Jim Righeimer in the Mayorship. I am one of those citizens and I will not work with Jim Righeimer, I do not care if he is the mayor. Take him out of the mayors chair.

Who is the dumba** that put the concrete pylons up in the middle of Broadway Street in Costa Mesa and ruined the bicycle lanes?

Dennis210
Dennis210

"80 percent of all cops are criminals and they violate the laws while they are on duty" And they are getting paid to be the criminals against the citizenry - So the cops are themselves the criminals but they look at you the citizen as more of one than they are then why are you giving them the pass for committing crimes that they do not understand. They are using violence against the citizenry, and this is allowable in extreme circumstances because they have guns strapped to thier sides and they use them sometimes not all that effectively, even the tazers that they carry have inflicted death upon people that did not deserve it because of the extreme electricity that they mete out,so what is the real answer and sometimes thier isn't one after they have deceased a person even with the tazer.

opinion11
opinion11

A high functioning patient with bipolar disorder such as Lisa's does not compare to a person suffering the neurological developmental brain disease of schizophrenia. She could understand the pros and cons of treatment and the risks of refusing medical treatment. She appears to be spared the frontal lobe damage most with schizophrenia develop. So until there is a cure for schizophrenia, and we have the political will to use the millions of dollars in MHSA money this county receives annually meant to supervise, monitor and treat these high risk, unengaged patients-such as Kelly Thomas-they will continue to become homeless, commit suicide, compromise community safety, and be left for law enforcement to manage the "gap in care" our county behavioral health department has been allowed to ignore.

MommyDissident
MommyDissident

This is Jennifer Hoff,

You have used our story as footing for your own.....Lauras Law is not meant for folks as well as Ms. Becker....it is for the sickest of the sick....those like my son Matthew Hoff (story by Michelle Woo) you referenced in your article.  

My heart is breaking and I will share why.

You are helping the MI reduce stigma by writing about this inspiring woman's journey to recovery yet by linking her quotes "if my mom had a bad hair day...." to OUR STORY you have created a false sense of FEAR like most media outlets do....Fear that we will somehow start running around and "locking everyone up" against their will.

Let me break it down for you a bit:

1.  The OCHCA does not care about our SERIOUSLY mentally ill...those without insight who think they are from the sky are left to die in the gutter (KELLY THOMAS)

2.  Without Lauras Law folks as sick as MY SON will continue to got to JAIL instead of a hospital....in other words his behavior is dangerous but our county does NOT have to offer any treatment because we have not adopted mandated outpatient treatment.

3.  Families like ours are DESPERATE to educate the public about the small but very sick population of individuals like my son...we want to keep the COMMUNITY safe and our loved ones safe but are being PREVENTED from doing so because our county does not want to spend the $$$$ on treatment for this population.

4.  The bleed to lead media descends on stories about violence with MI then claims GUN CONTROL as the culprit not a nation wide mental health crisis or the need for Reforming our Civil Commitment Laws so families like ours can keep our loved ones and you alive.

Please consider contacting us next time when you point to our story as a validation for assumptions your are drawing through the treads of your writing....the take away from this article is to be afraid of mandated outpatient treatment.  

I urge your readers to believe the opposite...that WITHOUT mandated treatment no one is protected.

Thank you,

Jen Hoff 

EqualJusticeForAll
EqualJusticeForAll

Great article.

Too often law enforcement officers have no option to deal with mentally ill other than taking people to Royale....where they are often released within 24 hours, or Royale cannot take them because they are at capacity.

The key is finding the right combination of medications that work, and more importantly, for the patients to take their medications on a regular basis. The most common complaint I hear is that patients do not like the way the medication makes them feel, even though it helps them. Also, some patients enjoy the extreme highs they get, the memories of which seem to outweigh the extreme lows they also hit.

While I certainly respect patient rights and understand both sides of the forced medication argument, law enforcement, the courts and mental health professionals need to have greater leeway in making this happen.

I once arrested a guy who had assumed a completely new persona and identity. Fingerprints revealed his true identity. I tracked down his family in another state, contacted them, and they said their schizophrenic son had walked out on his wife and three kids (also in another state) two years earlier and they had not heard from him since. They said their son does very well when medicated. I confronted the son about his true identity, which he completely denied. He had no warrants and had no reason to be lying. I put him on the phone with his father, and the son got very angry that the stranger on the phone was claiming to be his father. It was not an act. I called out the CAT team in an attempt to 5150 him, but they denied my request, because the guy was taking pretty good care of himself physically (bathing, eating, seeking shelter, etc.). Yet he was so mentally ill he literally did not know his own name.

This was a guy who, after a few days of forced medication, would have awakened from his illness, realized that he had abandoned his loving family and children, and had wasted two years of his life on the street. As it was, because I had verified his true identity, I had no choice but to release him from jail with a citation for a minor violation.

Very frustrating. There is also a stunning lack of available drug and mental health services for indigents who would like to seek treatment.

Also....while I sympathize with any parent of a schizophrenic, please stop identifying Ron Thomas as a former OCSD deputy until a reporter actually has questioned him about it and verified the details of his alleged employment.

whhackett3
whhackett3

Well written, great topic.  Now we just have to hope society at large starts to understand that mental health is just as important as physical health.

fastgurrrl
fastgurrrl

@MommyDissident I'm sorry for your situation sister, and though I enjoyed this article for a variety of reasons, I agree with you, and I am not an expert of any kind, other than having a neighbor for several years with schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder who would not take his medication because he didn't like the way it made him feel. Those were some of the worst years of my life, it was absolute hell listening to him all hours of the day, and no one can comprehend the things we heard. He was violent against himself, threatened himself and others, we called the police multiple times, they said it's not against the law to be crazy. He was finally kicked out and had to move somewhere else, but I feel sorry for his new neighbors. His parents and friends basically have left him to rot, and they don't seem to really care about him, or anyone else around him, because they have not forced/pushed him into treatment or hospitalization. I truly think one day I will hear that he blew his brains out, hopefully not setting the building on fire wherever he is first.

opinion11
opinion11

Schizophrenia is a brain disease. Its a neurological developmental brain disorder. Its not "mental" its not "behavioral" its "physical" its a biological organic brain disease-period. We do have diseases that occur in the organ of the brain-the brain is not magically exempt. Society just lacks real education on brain diseases and its signs and symtoms.

MommyDissident
MommyDissident

@fastgurrrl @MommyDissident That you very much for the kind words.  It sounds like you experienced first hand what is like to be a neighbor of someone who is very sick....and the sad thing is even if his family wanted to help our laws actually prevent parents from intervening after age 18 despite everyone "knowing" they simply have NO rights under the law to help their loved one get help....the Health Care Agency is our gate keeper to care in the OC....and they only help....well actually not sure if they help anyone who is not 100% voluntary.  If we lost Kelly Thomas (homeless, beaten) to their system then the system is set up to help absolutely no-one.

whhackett3
whhackett3

@opinion11 She doesn't have schizophrenia, she is bipolar.  While I'm sure, ultimately, we'll learn that all "mental illness" has a physiological basis I suspect that we are years away from that.  Besides that, nothing you state changes what I said, society turns a blind eye to any disorder that lacks "empirical" evidence.

coastx
coastx

@whhackett3 @opinion11 True schizophrenia presents as a brain anomaly.  Schizophreniform is metabolic and generally occurs concurrent with magnesium deficiency.

opinion11
opinion11

thats the problem>>the term "mental health" includes everything from stress at work to the disease of schizophrenia. You can measure everyones level of  mental health-same as measuring everyones cardiac health-it ranges from great>poor.. No wonder society is confused-the disease is one side of the coin and the persons ability to recover is the level of their mental health/wellness. Its also confusing to have a diagnosis that is also a symptom-ie: anxiety/depression. Many of these disorders need to be renamed to represent the true underlying medical condition.

whhackett3
whhackett3

@opinion11 I've represented a variety of clients with mental health issues.  One of the most difficult is severe depression.  I almost had to pull on the tongue of the "Medical Expert" at an SSI hearing to get him to admit that depression can have physical symptoms including pain.  

opinion11
opinion11

No she doesnt have schizophrenia..she clearly states she has bipolar disorder. The two are vastly different. She helps educate officers about mental illness-which includes the brain disease of schizophrenia. Im concerned society will look at her and believe all patients with "mental illness" can recover to her level. Society is vastly confused about brain disease and mental health. They get the two mixed up. There is heart disease and then cardiac rehab/recovery. Rehab depends on the severity of the underlying disease process. People who need more "emperical evidence" probably dont believe Alzheimers exists either. None of the neurological diseases have a specific blood test. They are all diagnosed by a neurological exam and brain scans. Brain damage clearly shows up on a MRI for patients with schizophrenia-while there is none with bipolar disorder.  

 
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