By Khadeeja Morse
In a psychotic episode, my son, Mikese, drove a car into a family who was bicycling outside their home on June 24, 2018. Pedro Aguerreberry, a 42-year old father of two sons, aged three and eight, was tragically killed as a result.
The state of Florida has determined that Mikese is not guilty by reason of insanity. On April 19, a judge will finalize this decision and determine where Mikese needs to be placed.
This horrible tragedy might never have happened if Mikese had received the treatment he needed—the treatment his brain illness deserved, and the treatment my son pleaded for when he took himself to our local police station and confessed he might hurt someone.
We will never stop reading about horrible events like my family’s until more people understand the obstacles to treatment our loved ones face, and until unjust laws are changed. That’s why I talk back.
Our fight continues to free Mikese from the criminal justice system and allow him to be treated in a psychiatric hospital.
We seek to have him removed from the criminal justice system completely, with no oversight. Mikese’s civil and legal rights were violated from the very beginning. Mikese was not in his sound mind to even be able to accept his Miranda rights based on all of the evidence at the time of the arrest. This was well documented in all of the records from the day of the arrest.
Why should Mikese be removed from the criminal justice system? There are a number of reasons.
Beyond the Mental Illness Stigma Is a Brain Disorder
Most people don’t realize schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are actually serious brain disorders (SBD). The American Psychiatric Association describes both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as brain disorders.
Being diagnosed with one of these disorders is bad enough. Having a combination, which is what Mikese has, is worse. To further complicate things, Mikese also suffered from anosognosia, which is when a person lacks awareness of their illness. Anosognosia is a common symptom of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Mikese had the wicked trifecta of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anosognosia. The hard, cold truth is that many people suffering from these illnesses end up homeless or incarcerated.
The IMD Exclusion and How It Contributes to Tragedy
The IMD exclusion prevents federal Medicaid funds from being used to care for individuals aged 21 to 64 in institutions for mental disease with more than sixteen beds. It basically discriminates because an illness is classified as “mental” instead of medical.
Since there’s no funding for mental illness, even if there are hospital beds available, a person with an illness classified as a mental illness can’t fill the bed. He simply gets released to his own accord, like Mikese was.
An excellent article by the National Shattering Silence Coalition explains why and how policies like the IMD exclusion discriminate against people with SBD, which is typically referred to as serious mental illness (SMI).
Why Classification Matters
I can’t give you a better example of why classification matters than another heartbreaking news story that happened on the same day as our tragedy. A distraught mother describes losing consciousness due to a medical emergency while bathing her infant daughter. Her baby drowned, and sheriffs classified this as an accidental drowning. You’ll hear her say she had no idea what happened. Click here to watch.
This video is especially hard for me to watch because when the police were at our house interrogating Mikese, I recall him saying the same thing as this mother. He said he felt something take over his body, and he didn’t know what happened.
The mother has a medical illness. Mikese also has a medical illness, but his is classified as a “mental” illness. Both conditions led to actions that resulted in loss of life. Yet each situation was handled very differently by the medical and legal systems.
Now can you better understand the ridiculousness of the IMD exclusion?
HIPAA Laws Further Complicate Things
In an additional unfortunate and related twist, HIPAA privacy laws often prevent families from finding out any information about their loved ones before, during, and after hospitalizations.
What’s worse is that loved ones are often released to the streets, alone, with no support or guidance. They are left to fend for themselves while managing a medical condition that significantly impairs how they think. How does that make sense?
Can you imagine just releasing to the streets someone suffering from a stroke or heart attack before they were fully recovered, without any notification to a family member or loved one about the condition, care, or treatment?
The deadly duo of the IMD exclusion and family-unfriendly HIPAA laws often creates an insurmountable barrier for families. I call it a deadly duo because this combination is what led to the tragedy.
When Mikese took himself to the police, they “Baker-acted” him and he was admitted to Gracepoint, a psychiatric hospital in Florida for people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
The Baker Act is the authorization to involuntarily confine someone for up to seventy-two hours. It is important to note that while the Baker Act involves involuntary confinement, Mikese requested help by initiating contact with the police. The fact that he sought help is part of why he should be freed from the criminal justice system and allowed to get the help he was seeking before the tragedy.
Mikese was still psychotic at the hospital, so much so that we had to take over his medical decisions because he wouldn’t take medicine and attacked a public defender who came to see him.
He was kept in the hospital for about seven days and released because he was supposedly stable. We know he was far from stable. Despite needing longer treatment to stabilize, he was prematurely released from the hospital because there was no funding for “mental” illness. The IMD Exclusion negatively impacted him.
Also, there was no aftercare to support him when he was discharged. Since he’s an adult, Mikese was released to the streets, alone, with a messy stack of hard-to-read paperwork, a bus pass and a “good luck.” Within days of his release, the tragedy happened.
Proof Is in the News
When we realized the police were not going to be truthful about what happened with Mikese, we knew we needed to speak up.
This was our first formal interview with a local news station. Listen all the way to the end when the reporter speaks to a local expert about the lack of available funding and space to support patients with mental illness.
As I have often said, this crisis of lacking mental health care is the worst kept secret in the country, getting very little media attention or funding.
Who Else Will Be Held Accountable?
This is why, after another local news story about Mikese’s sentencing, I wrote an open letter on Facebook to State’s Attorney Andrew Warren, asking who else he would hold accountable for Pedro Aguerryberry’s unfortunate and unnecessary death. On air, Warren states, "This case shows the consequences of Florida's broken mental health system, and the victim's wife and kids are left holding the pieces.”
His statement shows the great hypocrisy of the system, acknowledging only one side of the equation. It is true that the Aguerryberry family experienced a horrific loss that never should have happened. However, they aren't the only ones who are left holding the pieces.
Far too often, families like ours, who have been desperately trying to support our severely mentally ill loved ones with very few external resources, are left holding the sharpest pieces of the broken mental health system. We are marginalized and vilified because of the undesirable behavior of our loved ones. We get words and platitudes of understanding and support, especially after a tragedy or around election time, but not real, sustainable or meaningful proactive support.
Why I Talk Back
Click here for all images from my TikTok video. As you look at them, please keep in mind the whole story.
I talk back because my son couldn’t speak for himself. I talk back because it was very clear to us very early on that the police weren’t going to be honest about his brain illness. They had already begun to vilify and dehumanize Mikese during their press conference. They left out vital information about his illness and even the fact that they were the last ones to hospitalize him.
I talk back because there are thousands of people suffering from untreated SBDs. I talk back because those thousands of people have thousands of loved ones who are doing the best they can for their seriously ill loved ones. They too suffer profound pain and trauma as they watch their loved one slip away and are helpless to do anything about it.
I talk back because we need to be seen, heard and acknowledged. I talk back because we need help and not just lip service around election time or after a tragedy.
I talk back because we ask for help but what we usually get are bloodied fingers from the sharp, broken fragments of a failed mental health system we’re forced to piece together with our bare hands.
How You Can Help
I am a proud member of the National Shattering Silence Coalition and very much support their programs and platforms. The Calls to Action section of their website offers some great ways you can help support our cause.
Please also continue to keep our family and the Aguerryberry family in your thoughts and prayers.
Why do you talk back?
Please share your stories with us. Our stories must be shared with the general public who doesn't have a clue what we are going through. They do not know how incredibly broken our system of care for those with serious brain illnesses is. They have no clue that we are unable to get help for our loved ones. They have no clue that, instead of receiving treatment for their illnesses, our loved ones are abandoned, criminalized, and left to rot in jail or die in our streets. It's up to us to speak out and inspire change.
They must also be shared with Congress, our President, and anyone with the power to bring about the change we so desperately need.
Submit your stories to email@example.com. Please feel free to write them or, better yet, record an audio only if you wish to remain anonymous, or a video, if you are OK with us using your name.
Coordinator & Co-Chair Steering Committee, NSSC