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A Life Destroyed By Mental Illness

Evening Edition

Aired 7/23/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUEST

Michelle Kwik's son, Evan, was diagnosed with mental illness when he was 12 years old. This past February, he shot and killed himself after a 10-hour standoff with San Diego Sheriff's Deputies. Kwik agreed to share her personal experience trying to get help for her son.

Aired 7/23/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUEST

Brian Miller, MD, clinical director at Grossmont Hospital and chief psychiatrist at Alpine Special Treatment Center

Document

REVIEW OF SERVICES FOR INDIVIDUALS WITH SERIOUS MENTAL ILLNESS WHO ARE RESISTANT TO TREATMENT

REVIEW OF SERVICES FOR INDIVIDUALS WITH SERIOUS MENTAL ILLNESS WHO ARE RESISTANT TO TREATMENT

San Diego County Health and Human Services report ...

Last week, a San Diego family spread the ashes of their 22-year-old son in the Sierra Mountains. It was another painful moment surrounding a life destroyed by mental illness.

You may remember a very public part of this story. On February 20, two San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies were shot and injured in the line of duty in Encinitas. They were responding to a mother's call for help for her mentally ill son who had been threatening to commit suicide by cop. After a 10-hour standoff, 22-year-old Evan Kwik shot and killed himself.

Evan was one of what may be as many as 10,000 people in San Diego County suffering from severe mental illness who are resistant to treatment.

He and many others like him are falling through holes in the public safety net that's intended to help them.

The Kwik family's tragedy did not just spring up fully formed in February. Evan's mother Shelly Kwik said her son first began showing signs of depression and anxiety when he was 12-years-old. In junior high, he wouldn’t go to school.

“He was put into a special class where they just would give him packets of papers and he came to school an hour late every day because he had such bad insomnia he couldn’t make it to school and in junior high he started saying that he was going to kill himself quite often," Shelly said.

In high school, she said the pressure became too much for Evan. The medication he was taking gave him seizures so he stopped taking it.

"You can imagine if someone’s really depressed and you’re putting a lot of pressure on him, he couldn’t take it so at one point when they were giving him a lot of Saturday schools and he just couldn’t make it, he said, ‘I feel like I could pull a Columbine’," she said.

She told the school about the threat and was forced to send Evan away to a special program for emotionally disturbed kids.

Shelly says Evan's exact diagnosis was hard to pinpoint.

"Some doctors would say bipolar disorder, others said schizophrenia because he was really paranoid of other people and he didn’t like large groups of people," she said.

Shelly said she noticed a huge shift in Evan’s behavior after he stopped taking his medication. She suspected he was taking heroin.

“I confronted him and Evan he was honest, he was honest to me and he told me he was, and he told me why and he said it was the only thing that relieved his pain,” she said.

As Evan’s primary caregiver Shelly she said she used many of the options San Diego County offers to help people with mental illness.

Shelly said over the years she called 9-11 and had San Diego Sheriff Deputies take Evan into custody for psychiatric holds, under the welfare and institutions code 51-50, multiple times.

She said she tried to enroll Evan in the County’s In-Home Outpatient Treatment program but he refused to participate.

She took out a restraining order against Evan and says she used it to manipulate him with threats of sending him to jail but she never actually served the restraining order.

She tried to admit him to a psychiatric hospital and even took steps to place Evan under a conservatorship but was told it couldn’t be done because he was taking heroin.

Shelly said it got to the point that she couldn’t let people come to her home.

“I had to protect Evan from other people, and other people from Evan,” she said.

On February 20 Evan stole Shelly’s car. She called 9-11 and San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputies came to her home in Encinitas.

“Since the hospitals refused to keep him I thought my only hope now was to get him in jail.”

Evan returned home and barricaded himself in the attic.

Shelly says she took all the knives, the bear spray and ropes out of the house. What she says she didn’t know was that Evan had a gun.

The deputies tried to get Evan out of the attic with tear gas and when they went in to get him, he shot at them, wounding one in the head and one in the knee.

Evan called Shelly from the attic and told her he just shot the deputies.

“He said, ‘this is because when I was young you told them I said I was going to do a Columbine’ because he had said that once under a lot of stress when he was young, and so he said ‘I’m going to’ and I said ‘put the gun down,’” she said.

After a 10-hour standoff, Evan took his own life.

In response to the incident surrounding Evan’s death, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said in a statement,“There are common sense steps we can take to make it safer for my deputies and the public. It's necessary to deal with the dysfunctional mental health system. We also need to mandate universal background checks for any individual who wants to acquire a firearm in this country."

Shelly, said the incident surrounding her son's death cost the state millions of dollars.

"If one-eighth of that money was spent on prevention, Evan could still be alive," she said.

She said a faulty system puts the mentally ill at risk to themselves and others.

Shelly said after Evan’s death someone called and told her about Laura’s Law.

“People like Evan are not given help right now, they end up having to go to jail. And Laura’s Law, he would have been in front of a judge two years prior to…even before he ever did black tar heroin. And if he could have gotten that help he needed it would have at least given us time to research different options for him,” she said.

San Diego County is reviewing the mental health services available to people living in the county who are severely mentally ill and are resistant to treatment.

This story was produced with support from the USC Annenberg/California Endowment Health Journalism fellowship.

Comments

Avatar for user 'ElizabethCS'

ElizabethCS | July 23, 2013 at 12:52 p.m. ― 1 year ago

So much if this family's story is my family's story. I have a sibling severely effected by mental illness and had many of the same symptoms as Evan. We are grateful she made it through the toughest times and is still with us, at times the road was so rough and there is no explanation as to why my sister is still here and Evan is not. My heart was breaking for this family. We can do better for people who are in so much pain. Mental illness is underfunded and under researched. And although the studies tell us that an institutional model doesn't work (and is at times, inhumane) we continue to treat mentally ill people using that model. My love to you, Shelly and to your family. I'm so sorry for your loss.

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Avatar for user 'reneetk'

reneetk | July 25, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. ― 1 year ago

Mental illness did not destroy Evan's life. A dysfunctional mental health system (in large part because of lack of resources), under-trained police officers, a family that didn't have adequate support, a media that perpetuates stigma and a community that accepts what the media says as truth, ignorance across the board, failure to embrace the concept of recovery.....these are some of the things that led to Evan's death.

No one wants to experience mental illness and no wants wants their loved ones to experience it. Guess what, the same is true of cancer. The difference is that people get treatment for cancer, society is compassionate towards individuals with cancer, the media rallies around efforts to support those with cancer as well as fundraising for research to cure cancer....there is no stigma, there is no discrimination, there is no scapegoating.

If Even died of cancer, the headline would have been something like "Evan lost a valiant battle against cancer." Well, actually, there wouldn't be a headline because it wouldn't be viewed as newsworthy. Treat mental illness the same way that cancer is treated and there will be no headlines like "a life destroyed by mental illness."

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