It has been nearly two years since Lorena Taylor-McPhail’s son, Jordan Anderson, took his own life by jumping off the 11th floor of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle.
Anderson was raised in Gig Harbor, attended Harbor Ridge Middle School and Peninsula High School through his junior year. For a time, he worked at the Anthony’s Restaurant.
Anderson's death was the final chapter in his seemingly sudden struggle with severe mental illness and the impetus for his mother’s crusade to reform mental health care laws in Washington state.
In mid-February, she told her son’s story at legislative hearings in Olympia.
The 21-year-old Anderson's first psychotic break came on Jan. 14, 2011, with religious-themed hallucinations. He claimed he was a prophet sent to save mankind from earthquakes and poisoned air. He jumped out of a moving car and was involuntarily committed.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said his mom, who originally thought he might be on drugs.
A medical screening found no drugs in his system.
Anderson's stay at a West Seattle psychiatric hospital lasted mere hours. Anderson smashed a third-story window with a table and leaped out, and he crushed his heel in the process, said his mother, who added her son was apparently left unsupervised when staff members took a break.
“It took six hours and six squad cars to find him,” Taylor-McPhail said. “He had to have his heel replaced with plates and pins. It was a huge nightmare.”
Following a month-long stint at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Anderson left the facility under a court-ordered treatment plan, but he got permission to visit his father, Ted, in Arizona.
For a while, he was doing well.
With his 90-day treatment plan coming to an end, Taylor-McPhail said she called her son’s case manager because he had stopped taking his medication, but she was ignored. Anderson's delusions returned.
On a Sunday morning in June 2011, while she was getting ready for church, she found Anderson dressed for worship but spread-eagle on his bed, seized by psychosis. He rambled on about a war between good and evil, telling his mother he was burning up.
She called 9-1-1, hoping to get her son back to Harborview, but she was told seven other patients were backed up in the emergency room.
Instead, Anderson ended up at a hospital in Federal Way. Taylor-McPhail recalled a King County psychiatric evaluator determining Taylor wasn’t an immediate risk to himself or others, and they suggested he spend the night in a homeless shelter.
Mental health confidentiality laws meant the evaluator couldn’t take into account Taylor-McPhail’s concerns.
Anderson was not involuntarily committed. He left the Federal Way hospital with just a bus pass, and he found his way to Seattle the next day, June 13, 2011, when he would end up taking his own life.
EARLY WARNING SIGNS
While Anderson's psychosis seemed to come out of nowhere, Taylor-McPhail said she now recognizes there were signs of mental illness.
“I started noticing changes in August 2010. He started coming up with strange ideas and religious beliefs,” she said, noting it’s common for schizophrenics to have delusions that are religious in nature. “I kind of dismissed it as developmental.”
The odd behavior continued.
Her son came to visit that Thanksgiving, complaining of aches and pains and some of his senses not working correctly. Taylor-McPhail also observed Anderson was losing weight. He told his mom that everyone in the north Ruston area of Tacoma had multiple sclerosis because of water polluted by a nearby smelter.
“Things like that started coming out,” Taylor-McPhail said. “I didn’t recognize it as psychosis.”
She took him to church, where he received some counseling, and then brought him home, where he started to hallucinate and claim a friend of his controlled the weather.
“In eighth grade, Jordan was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder,” Taylor-McPhail said.
Scientists are learning that ADHD symptoms may be a precursor for psychosis and are very similar to early signs of schizophrenia, Taylor-McPhail said.
She said she noticed that, even as a young boy, her son was impulsive and fearless.
“He was always getting hurt and taking risks that were unnecessary,” she said. “Grandiose behavior was coming out at a very young age.”
Anderson also was easily distracted, she said. So much so that it was originally thought he might have a hearing problem.
STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS
Dealing with Anderson's mental illness was made even more difficult — for mother and son — by the stigma attached to the disease. She resisted joining a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group and didn’t tell her son’s friends about Anderson's condition.
“Very few people know he was in psychiatric ward,” she said. “I didn’t want him to have to face discrimination. I was told he might get over it. So I kept quiet, so I didn’t have much public support. I felt very ashamed.”
Anderson was struggling with similar feelings, too.
Taking his medication was an admission to himself that he was crazy, Taylor-McPhail said.
“When he was on his meds, he was able to function,” she said. “But they were so strong, it would knock him on his butt for four or five hours.”
The real knockdown part of mental illness remained the stigma.
“The stigma is hard to deal with,” Taylor-McPhail said. “Reducing the stigma is key to understanding that mental health is a medical issue. I think it’s the core of the problem.”
SPURRING LAWMAKERS TO ACTION
Taylor-McPhail has since overcome any trepidation on speaking out about the stigma of mental illness, going so far as to tell her son’s story at legislative hearings last month as part of a slew of bills aimed at strengthening laws to prevent or cut down on accounts of scant treatment or treatment denied at critical moments.
“It was really hard for me to get him treatment,” she said, recalling the difficulty of having to prove her son was an imminent threat to himself or others in order to get committed for the help he needed.
The frustrating part for Taylor-McPhail and others dealing with similar problems is the fact the Legislature passed a law in 2010 to deal with this exact scenario. House Bill 2076 loosened criteria for the Involuntary Treatment Act, allowing evaluators to consider a patient’s history, including family members’ statements, before they decide whether to civilly commit a patient.
But the start date was delayed twice — to 2012, then 2015 — because it would require hundreds more hospital beds at a cost of about $11 million a year.
The Legislature is considering speeding up implementation with Senate Bill 5480. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget set aside $7.5 million for it. State Sen. Mike Carroll last month gave it a hearing in the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee.
Taylor-McPhail has been working with state Sen. Nathaniel Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, on legislation aimed at lowering the threshold for commitment by allowing doctors to have more of a say in the decision. Right now, it’s in the hands of a designated mental health provider.
“Hopefully this will be a little bit of a check on the system,” said Schlicher, an emergency room physician. “It’s one of the things that’s a real challenge.”
As a doctor, Schlicher said he understands what people have to endure in dealing with someone who suffers from mental illness.
“People feel powerless to help loved ones get help,” he said. “They’re standing on the precipice of a cliff to prevent them from falling, instead of being two steps ahead. Lorena’s son was standing on the edge, and he fell off.”
Schlicher recognizes the economic reality of the situation, advocating a prevention strategy that he says would help more people and save money.
“The hard thing is that our state system is crisis-driven,” he said. “There’s not much funding until we’re in crisis, and then we spend money for involuntary treatment at $180,000 per bed. It’s a huge dollar amount. That just doesn’t make sense.”
Both bills have gone to their respective rules committees for a decision on being placed on the floor calendar for a second reading.
Taylor-McPhail has mixed feelings about what her efforts with the Legislature will mean.
“I see a lot of sympathy from them, and several people have proposed bills,” she said. “I felt as though I was empathized with, but I feel a lot of the bills are starting to die, and it remains to be seen if they will be funded. I think they’re just waiting for us to go away and go back to business as usual.”
She has no plans to go back where she came from. She sees some hopeful signs in the culture that mental illness is being taken more seriously.
The mass shooting of 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has brought attention to the issue of mental health.
The critically acclaimed motion picture “Silver Linings Playbook” also has shown the spotlight on mental illness in a more favorable regard.
“There’s been a lot of talk about public-awareness campaigns to discuss mental health issues,” Taylor-McPhail said. “My goal is to raise awareness in the Gig Harbor community.”
REMEMBERING JORDAN ANDERSON
“I can’t believe it’s happened to one of my children,” Taylor-McPhail said. “He was dynamic, he was talented, he was athletic. He was very creative and wanted to run a business and earn money.”
In Anderson's case, he was thinking about starting an automotive-parts business, and he was a skilled BMX racer whose friends enjoyed his company.
She described her son at tall, 6-foot-2, handsome, well-liked, giving and someone who would never hurt anyone.
Even in the midst of episodes of psychosis, Anderson was more concerned with others and not himself.
“He was preaching to people in the hospital,” she said. “He wanted to save everyone.”
Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gateway_brett.