A specter is haunting Mendocino: the specter of mental illness. No one knows that story better, both personally and professionally, than Thomas D. Allman who has served as the county sheriff ever since he was first elected to the office in 2006, a year after his older brother, Mike, shot and killed himself in Humboldt County. Mike Allman was 47 years old, a veteran of the US Air Force, the father of four children, and a college graduate who “always had demons.” The Allman family hasn’t been the same since that day, as the Sheriff himself explained in his office on Low Gap Road in Ukiah, where he not only has a collection of unusual hats, but where he also wears many different hats as the county’s top cop and the most visible advocate for mental health in Mendocino. “When I became sheriff, I didn’t realize the enormity of the problem of mental illness in our county,” he tells me. “Now I do.”
After Mike Allman’s 2005 suicide, his mother, Norma, joined The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the grass roots organization that provides support to the families of the mentally ill. Norma proudly calls herself a “NAMI Mommy” and Tom Allman is proud of her efforts on behalf of the mentally ill. Mendocino law enforcement officers have trained with NAMI professionals — there’s a NAMI chapter in Ukiah — and, not surprisingly, Sheriff Allman has good things to say about the organization and its efficiency. Indeed, help for the mentally ill isn’t far away if one knows where to turn, whom to call and if loving family members can provide assistance.
Over the past decade, Sheriff Allman has watched as mental health as an issue has moved from the sidelines to the center of the stage in Mendocino County. He has seen it morph with amazing speed into a social epidemic that has devastated families, ripped apart the fabric of communities and destroyed human lives.
Per capita, Mendocino is rated 10th or 11th in suicides in California. For all its natural beauty, there’s a dark side to the county. There are more suicides per capita in rural than in urban areas, and more suicides per capita in northern California than in southern California, though more people commit suicide in and around Los Angles than in all of northern California’s counties. Mendocino ranks high on the California suicide list, but Lake and Trinity counties are higher still.
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Allman hasn’t merely sat back and observed the alarming epidemic that affects citizens inland and on the coast, in the mountains and the valleys, in well-off and not very well-off families. Sitting back and just observing is not his way. It never has been. It wasn’t with marijuana and it’s not with mental health now. Once again, he has waded into turbulent waters and rolled up his sleeves. Indeed, while he hasn’t acted alone, he’s largely responsible for two linked measures, AG and AH, which will be on the ballot this November.
As Allman’s lucid Facebook page explains, “Mendocino County Voters will soon have an opportunity to vote for a TEMPORARY half-cent sales tax to develop a Mental Health Facility right here, in Mendocino County. I hope that you will help me support Measures AG and Measures AH.” The response has given him all the encouragement he could want or need.
Allman, along with friends, allies and supporters — there are thousands of them from all walks of life — want a new facility for the mentally ill in Mendocino. They also want to train doctors, nurses, health professionals, parents, pharmacists, teachers, bus drivers, students and the like so they will understand and know how to work with the mentally ill. Clearly it takes a village.
Right now, as many citizens no doubt know, the county does not have a hospital for angry, self-destructive teens, distraught, depressed lovers and troubled, trigger-happy veterans who often can’t get to a VA hospital in time to make a difference. Mendocino County shuttered its Psychiatric Housing Facility (PHF) in 1999.
Adding to the problem, are the befuddled tourists up and down the Mendocino coast who on any given day might be a danger to themselves and to others. They also need help and they get it, too. Ironically, or perhaps not, Mendocino County deputies are usually the first responders when visitors have psychotic episodes in hotel and motel rooms and threaten to end their lives. Vacations can bring out the worst in almost anyone. Moreover, there are dozens of mentally ill individuals who may or may not commit a crime, but who end up in the county jail. Twenty-percent of all inmates have psychological problems that can be exacerbated by cold cells and iron bars.
Right now, sad to say, Mendocino often sends the disturbed, the unbalanced and the unhinged to Vallejo, Sonoma and Yuba, usually in the back seat of a police vehicle equipped with a cage. “Think of a sixteen-year-old girl-who receives a text from her boyfriend that says, ‘goodbye,” Allman explains. “She takes an overdose. Law enforcement shows up, drags her away and deposits her in a hospital in Yuba later the same day where she sits around maybe for hours. By then, she might be really suicidal.”
Allman doesn’t provide a name for the troubled teenage girl dumped by her dumb boyfriend. He doesn’t have to. There are dozens of teens like her. The County exports them, much as it exports wine and marijuana; and it sends taxpayers’ dollars out of the county, too, to facilities across northern California.
The more stories that Allman tells, the more obvious it is that the issue has touched a nerve. He almost went ballistic himself when a man was denied treatment because his form was filled out in two different colors – blue and black — and didn’t pass muster. And he finds it mind-boggling that the county will spend a small fortune looking for a hunter lost in the wilderness, but will pinch pennies when it comes to rescuing a teenage lost in her own head. The way that American society —not just Mendocino County — mistreats the mentally ill is enough to drive almost anyone crazy at least for a day or two.
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Sheriff Allman doesn’t like what he sees and hears. He doesn’t think it’s right. But right now, men and women who are trained to enforce the law are also asked to tend to the needs of the mentally ill, from Point Arena to Covelo and from Leggett to Gualala.
“When a police officer kills a mentally ill person,” Allman says, “the media usually wants to know why that’s happened. What reporters ought to ask is not why the cop shot and killed the man, but why law enforcement and not mental health professionals responded in the first place?”
Allman adds, “If a non-violent person is having a psychotic episode, don’t dispatch a 21-year-old officer who has been told that people are out to kill him or her, and who has been trained to use a gun, a baton, and a Taser.” To clarify even further, the sheriff explains, “I want law enforcement to enforce the law and I want mental health professionals to provide mental health services.” If that sounds basic, it is. It’s as American as the separation of church and state, the right to a fair trial and the pursuit of happiness that Thomas Jefferson touted in the Declaration of Independence.
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The problem, as Allman understands it, isn’t merely the absence of a local facility for the mentally ill, or the lack of trained professionals. It’s broader, deeper and perhaps more fundamental. It comes down to attitudes and prejudices and the fact that mental illness has been and still is the elephant in the room that few if any people have been willing to talk about openly and candidly.
“When someone is depressed, suicidal or psychotic they’re often told, ‘Hey, suck it up,’” Allman says. “We have to accept the fact that mental illness is all-pervasive. Over the years that I’ve been Sheriff, I’ve learned that everyone has a mental health story to tell. Now, what we need to do is improve the quality of life for the kinds of people who want to end their own lives and who don't see a reason to go on living.”
As Sheriff, Allman has seen more crises than he imagined he would ever see when he started out as sheriff a decade-and-a-half ago. In fact, he’s seen mental illness flare up in all kinds of situations, from domestic violence and teenage run-aways to family feuds. It’s the common denominator. Two Sheriff’s Department employees took their own lives during his watch — and that hurt. “I was outside the apartment for one of the suicides,” he says. “I heard the gun go off. I was a friend.”
And he still hasn’t forgotten his brother, Mike, who took his own life, or that his mother is still in recovery.
With the sheriff’s enthusiastic backing, Props AG and AH seem to have a good chance of passing. The mental health community has provided strong backing. NAMI supports AG and AH, but it’s Allman who has taken the lead. He gathered, all on his own, hundreds of signatures on the petitions that put the measures on the ballot. Moreover, he has stayed cool, calm and collected.
“Hey, mental illness isn’t a crime,” he tells me.
What should a young deputy know when she or he goes out for the first time in response to a crisis, I ask him. “Check in your tool box,” he says.
“Make sure that you have plenty of empathy and lots of caring.” Indeed, until a new facility is built and professionals are recruited and hired, Mendocino will have to count, to a large extent, on the empathy and the caring of young law enforcement officers. Perhaps Sheriff Tom Allman himself will inspire them to do the right thing.