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In rural northwest mentally ill teens struggle for services

Experts say mental health services for teens are especially inadequate in rural areas. That describes huge swaths of our region.

The long road for mental illness

You have to drive long roads through seas of wheat stubble to get to Joy and Wayne Odum’s house. For years in this stark landscape Joy and Wayne have felt unsettled. Unsafe.

It all started when they finally got custody and adopted their grandson Kristopher when he was 7.

“His birth mother was living in a car. He was eating dirty hamburgers off the car floor,” says Joy Odum.

Joy and her husband Wayne adopted Kristopher as their son. Right away they could see he had a mental illness.

“He would play little games, like picking up the knickknacks, moving them. Running around the house and playing hide and seek,” she recalls. “And he had this really funny laugh on his face. You could tell something was wrong. You could see it in his eyes.”

One time Kristopher head butted his mother.

“That’s the first time we called the deputies,” Joy says.

Rural services already limited and still shrinking

In Adams County, and across the rural Northwest there are limited services for mentally ill kids. Many programs have been cut altogether, or scaled way back because of shrinking state budgets. And that’s left families like the Odums without much help.

“This is happening everywhere,” says Kate Brueske, administrator of integrated health services for Adams County. She says that rural mental health services have been limited for a long time, but recently she’s had to cut the state-funded part of her county’s programs in half.

“We have continued to see more and more people that are in crisis,” Brueske says. “Because they are not able to reach services before they reach that point.”

When Kristopher was in crisis back then, the Odums options were limited: Call a 24-hour county crisis line to talk out the situation, or call the Adams County Sheriff’s office.

I tracked down a record of those calls. Two pages of single spaced incidents including arson, domestic violence, harassment and assaults.

Jail is a mental health facility

Douglas Barger is the Adams County Sheriff. He says many of the kids he takes into custody should really be getting mental health care.

“We operate a jail by state law, it’s considered an approved mental health facility,” Barger says. “But we store people. We don’t treat people, we don’t council people. Law enforcement as a whole isn’t set up for that.”

Kristopher Odum’s troubles with the law eventually landed him in juvenile hall. Wayne Odum works at a nearby minimum and medium-security prison, Coyote Ridge. And he certainly didn’t want his son being locked up.

“I didn’t know what’s going on in the juvenile detention center, but I know what goes on inside of our place,” he says. “I was extremely concerned about the violence. Here’s my son, he’s around 12 and the fear for my son’s safety was of great concern. As far as I’m concerned it was extremely nerve wracking to have him up there.”

After he got out of the juvenile detention center, the violent behavior worsened. One night Kristopher grabbed his mother’s wrist and wouldn’t let go. Then he shook her near the stairs. She was afraid that she would fall down. Joy called the crisis line again. Later, Kristopher came out of his bedroom.

'You are not safe'

“He just said, ‘You are not safe’” she says. “At the time when he said that, a chill kind of went up me. But when I thought about it. Do I really think that my son would really, really kill me? No. I think it was impulsiveness, and I overreacted. Back then I did, I overreacted a lot.”

That incident landed Kristopher eventually in an inpatient treatment facility in Spokane, about an hour and a half away. He stayed for about a year. He’s still seeing a physiatrist there. Being treated in Spokane has helped a great deal. He’s on better meds. He obeys more. He does his schoolwork.

Wayne has a coworker that has offered to help resolve Kristopher’s rages. And Joy and Wayne have learned new parenting skills. Which they acknowledge they needed.

A long road to progress

Even with all that progress, it’s still unsettling to meet Kristopher. He’s got the stature of a nearly-full-grown man and he won’t meet your eyes. And the Odum home is unsettling in its own way too. All the drapes are pulled tightly closed on a bright sunshiny day.

But it’s evident Joy and Wayne are trying. Joy tussles Kristopher’s hair, and coos sweetly to him.

“I love him so much. And he’s my baby. And I’ll be there no matter what for him,” she says. “He’s come a long ways since from when he was 7. I’ve always been there for him. I have never given up on him.”

The Odums say they don’t care how bad it gets, they aren’t calling the sheriff again. Wayne and Joy still trust their son. They don’t want him locked up again. Very soon Kristopher will be off his year-long probation.

Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.