‘My story is a vehicle:’ SC King Day at the Dome shines light on mental illness

King Day at the Dome shines light on mental illness

01/21/2013 11:01 AM

01/22/2013 7:46 AM

As a teenager, Charleston’s Lloyd Hale began to hear familiar voices while alone. Soon, he was having conversations inside his head with people he knew and started “acting out.”

But it was only after Hale was charged with murder that the process of diagnosing his schizophrenia and seeking treatment began.

Now, working as a peer-support specialist who counsels sufferers of mental illness, Hale, 32, shared some of his experience at the 13th annual King Day at the Dome, the state’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy.

Organizers estimated between 1,300 and 2,000 people marched to the State House Monday, where this year’s rally focused on mental illness as a civil rights issue.

Hale traces the early symptoms of his schizophrenia to age 14, when he said he found a bag of marijuana on the ground and started using. From then on, the symptoms of his mental illness intensified, leading to the shooting and his arrest.

Hale was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to psychiatric treatment, where he started a long journey to recovery.

While he has reached out to the victim’s family to express his remorse, Hale knows he never can take back what happened. But he can “give a new face to mental illness,” he said, by helping others “see what they already know” — that with treatment, support and the right outlook, they can control their mental illness and lead productive lives.

Hale encouraged the crowd at the State House Monday to talk openly about mental health issues and share their experiences as a way to help others.

“My story is a vehicle. Your story is a vehicle.”

A civil rights issue

The civil rights agenda that Americans inherited from King calls for a “broad defense of all those in our community who face injustice and neglect,” Richland County Probate Judge Amy McCulloch said during the King Day rally.

But only 38 percent of people diagnosed with mental illness seek treatment, she said. More do not seek help because of the stigma attached to mental illness and budget cuts to mental-health programs that provide crisis treatment but little preventive care, she said.

The collision of the mentally ill with the criminal justice system also has a high cost, McCulloch said. But that cost can be reduced by mental-health courts, like the one that Richland County created, that monitor the mentally ill throughout their treatment, she said.

Since Richland County opened its mental health court in 2003, 73 percent of the court’s graduates have not been re-arrested or committed for emergency treatment, McCulloch said. But mental-health courts are rare, she said, adding Richland County’s is one of only five in the state.

Since 2008, the budget of the S.C. Department of Mental Health also has been cut by $90 million, said Bill Lindsey, S.C. executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Lawmakers are restoring mental health funding slowly, he said, and considering legislation that will improve a patient’s treatment.

‘More work to be done’

Started in 2000 to protest the Confederate flag flying on the State House dome, King Day has drawn as many as 50,000 participants and as few as 1,000. Some speakers Monday criticized the flag still flying on a Confederate memorial in the middle of marchers.

Juanita Edwards, grand worthy matron of Prince Hall, Order of Eastern Stars in Summerville, said it meant a lot to her to watch President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on the steps of the State House, near where the Confederate flag is displayed. The King Day event ended at noon with a live broadcast of the president’s public swearing-in ceremony.

William Barber, president of the N.C. conference of the NAACP, gave the keynote address at a Zion Baptist Church prayer service before the march to the State House.

Barber said King warned America could face spiritual indictment if it did not use its wealth to help the needy. Continued poverty among African-Americans and other minorities, Barber said, is proof there is “more work to be done.”

Barber also responded to a speech Gov. Nikki Haley recently gave about how King inspired her while she was growing up. Barber agreed King would be proud of Haley, the state’s first female and first minority governor. But “color is not the issue,” he said. What matters is “the character of what you do with your power.”

Barber criticized Haley’s support of a state voter ID law, and said it is “hypocritical” to honor King and fly the Confederate flag on the State House grounds.

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