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Suicide victim's mother speaks out

Published: Monday, February 24, 2014 at 7:44 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 at 7:44 a.m.

When two Petaluma police officers approached her door on Jan. 20, eastside resident Victoria Mataragas' motherly instincts went on high alert.

“One of them was carrying a cross — he looked like a priest — and I just knew that it was about Michael,” she said.

Just 24 hours earlier, Mataragas' 24-year-old schizophrenic son, Michael, left to visit his father in South San Francisco, but never arrived. Then police officers delivered the news that no parent ever wants to hear: Michael committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It was unreal — what they were telling me,” she said this week staring blankly into the distance.

It has been a month since this Petaluma mother of two became a mother of one. And though Mataragas says she wished she had done more for her son, she also wonders what else she could have done.

“I was burned out by the end,” she said. “I did the best I could, but I always felt so lost. When your kid has cancer, you just know what to do. You stop what you're doing, you get them treatment, and — god willing — they get better. But it's not like that with many mental illnesses.”

For those with loved ones plagued by a mental illness — or those who are fighting a disease themselves — it can often be difficult to connect with services and navigate treatments. According to a California Healthcare Foundation study from July 2013, more than 60 percent of Californians with a mental illness do not receive any treatment.

In Sonoma County, healthcare providers point out that mentally ill patients and their families have more access to treatment options than people in other areas of the country. But many question whether it's enough.

Coping with a sick child

Mataragas remembers the first psychotic break her son Michael ever had two years ago.

“He was at his father's home in south San Francisco and he believed a biblical angel was coming to drag him to hell. He stripped naked and ran from his father's home to the south city police station, six blocks away.”

And while this was Michael's first psychotic break — which led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia — Mataragas said her son struggled with the disease throughout his teen years.

“He started out being withdrawn in middle school,” she said. “And later, he would call me from the bathroom stalls at Casa Grande High School, crying and begging me to pick him up.”

Mataragas said that she and Michael's father were unsure of how to handle the situation.

“We didn't know if it was clinical depression, or just teenage angst, or something more serious,” said Mataragas.

After careful consideration, they decided to home-school their youngest child. With the aid of a teaching assistant from Casa Grande, Michael eventually graduated, but Mataragas said he always struggled to fit in socially.

“He had really good times and really bad times,” Mataragas said. “When you're going through it, you just feel lost. People will tell you not to baby your child, others will tell you to do more. But there's no blueprint to follow.”

Mataragas, who works for Kaiser Permanente, said that her employer was extremely supportive. But even so, she admitted it was difficult to repeatedly ask for help and time off work.

“The stigma that comes with having a mentally ill child is incredible,” she said. “And when you have a grown adult child who has schizophrenia — how do you go to your boss and ask for time off to deal with it?”

Mataragas knows her family was lucky because Michael always sought treatment. Unlike some mentally ill people who refuse medication, therapy or assistance, Michael always tried to get better. He faithfully took his prescribed medication — despite suffering debilitating and embarrassing side effects — he saw psychiatrists, he went to church regularly, he volunteered with the elderly and he did his best to stay engaged in the world.

“He was worth worrying about and worth fighting for,” she said. “If I had it to do over again, I would have tried to do more — tried to learn more, tried to do everything I possibly could.”

Resources

The national Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 38,000 people commit suicide in the United States each year. Of those, more than 90 percent suffer from a mental illness.

In Sonoma County — and Petaluma specifically — people battling a mental illness have a wide array of services available, if they're willing to seek help.

“Petaluma has been great about making that available and connecting people to resources,” said Erika Klohe, family service coordinator at Buckelew, a county-wide organization that serves the mentally ill.

But despite the long list of service providers in Petaluma, health care officials and local law enforcement acknowledge that the amount of care doesn't begin to meet the needs. Petaluma police called the issue of how to help mentally ill criminals the biggest problem facing law enforcement today. Local psychologist Dr. Peter Bernstein said he wasn't surprised.

“We see it over and over again — mentally ill patients who get wrapped up in the criminal justice system because their disease makes them do things,” said Bernstein. “But it doesn't have to be that way.”

Bernstein, whose center focuses on psychotherapy and trauma, is currently treating about 50 patients — many of them veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. He said that the stigma those with mental illnesses must face is a hurdle that's difficult to overcome.

“No one is doing public relations for the mentally ill,” he said. “There are no runs for bipolar disorder, or fundraisers for schizophrenia. The feel-good stuff is reserved for diseases like cancer and heart disease.”

Sonoma County has proved more proactive than many. Recently, a 95-bed mental health hospital called the Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital opened to serve those with mental health, addiction and other behavioral ailments. The facility offers hospitalization stays, along with therapy and medical care. Klohe said that having a facility in Sonoma County will make a major difference for many local families.

“As a society, we need more services, but as a county, we've done really well,” she said. “Having this facility is important. It means that loved ones won't have to travel long distances to get help for those who need it.”

Mataragas agreed and said that when her son was sent to out-of-county psychiatric hospitals for extended stays, it was difficult for her to visit him or keep track of his condition.

“We had to go to Oakland and other areas just to visit him,” she said.

Additionally, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services created more resources in Petaluma by expanding its mobile support team to the southern county for the first time. The team will be mobilized by 911 dispatchers when law enforcment respond to a mental health call.

“Once officers determine that it's safe, the mobile team will be able to go in and offer more assistance,” said Klohe.

In addition to organizations offering services, Petaluma also has citizen-based meetings where members of the community can turn to for support. Bernstein helps organize the Resilience Café, at Aqus Cafe, a monthly meeting where people in pain can gather for support.

“Sometimes it helps not going to a doctor's office,” said Bernstein. “These were people from the community in pain, from all walks of life.”

Lessons learned

For Mataragas, her son's struggle with mental illness has taught her a lot.

“We need to find out what's really going on and treat mental illness the way we treat other diseases, like cancer,” she said. “No one judges you if you have cancer, but if you have schizophrenia, society often tells you it's your fault — that there's something wrong with you. Just because mental illness doesn't show up on tests, doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that it doesn't require as much treatment as any other disease.”

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