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How the health care system is failing schizophrenics

Whether Georgia residents know it or not, they have likely been exposed to the effects of untreated schizophrenia. Many will remember that in 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was wounded in a shooting spree that killed six and injured 13. Court psychiatrists later diagnosed the shooter as schizophrenic.

In mid-October 2010, a man who had tried to take his own life just 18 days before got behind the wheel and caused an accident that took the life of a 31-year-old woman. That man had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his family had been fighting an uphill battle to keep him medicated.

In 2004, the man went on Social Security disability because of his inability to hold a full-time job due to his mental condition. He also filed for bankruptcy because of student loans and credit card debt he could not repay.

Over the span of six years, the man's parents took a harrowing tour of the health care system and discovered that it was not designed to help them or their son. Mental illness hospital stays have been cut by 39 percent, according to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research.

And medication is difficult as well. The director of the Johns Hopkins University schizophrenia program said doctors are given one week to determine if antipsychotics are having any effect. Some of the drugs may take two weeks to produce results.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were 104,617 mental illness-related deaths in 2008. That is a rise from 42,128 deaths 11 years before. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression are three serious mental illnesses that did not see a rise, and accounted for less than 1 percent of all deaths.

However, the chief of mortality statistics at NCHS said that number may not be accurate. When tallying up mortality rates, determining the root cause of death can be tricky. Like in the case above, the cause of death was ruled as injuries from the car accident.

Source: Bloomberg, "Son Who Hears Voices Finds Health Care Fatally Dysfunctional," Tom Moroney, Feb. 28, 2012

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