It was December of 2012 when 33-year-old Petaluma resident Nick Xydas first saw things that weren't real and heard voices in his head.
"It was frightening," said Xydas, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder years before when he was 17. "I'd hear voices telling me to do things and see flashes from my past appear on the television screen — as if they were part of the show I was watching. I didn't want to give in to the images and voices, so I'd start to cry, but no one could help me."
Though his family offered words of support and rides to the psychiatrist, Xydas was often inconsolable. On the evening of Dec. 7, 2012, he reached his breaking point and physically pushed his father.
"We were arguing, one thing led to another and I shoved him," said Xydas.
Like so many who struggle with mental illness, Xydas' holiday breakdown caused his family to call the police for help. When Petaluma police officers arrived at the eastside home, they arrested Xydas for assaulting his elderly father — catapulting him into the criminal justice system that has become a de facto first response for treating the mentally ill.
Although the days of locking mentally ill patients in an institution like the one depicted in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" are long gone, exactly how to handle the mentally ill is an issue that continues to plague American society. While other diseases receive public support and empathy, mental illness is haunted by negative stigma, a lack of dedicated resources and the continued criminalization of those who suffer from it.
According to the California Healthcare Foundation, one in six California adults are diagnosed with a mental illness, but only about one-third are receiving treatment. And with so many falling through the cracks, law enforcement agencies are struggling.
Hospital to lock-up
Xydas was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his junior year of high school. Prior to that, he was a student at Casa Grande High School battling severe bouts of depression.
"I remember asking my parents to take me to a doctor because I was so depressed," recalled Xydas while on a break from his part-time job at the Goodwill in Santa Rosa. "I told the doctor I wanted to kill myself and he put me on a three-day psych hold. I was strapped to a bed, restrained tightly. I was terrified. The experience was extremely traumatic."
Soon after doctors at Kaiser Permanente diagnosed Xydas as bipolar and prescribed him a drug regime of Lithium, Zoloft and Ziprexa — strong antidepressant and anti-psychotic medicines that left him exhausted, but unable to sleep.
"Still, the drugs killed the voices and the hallucinations, so I stuck with them," he said.
The next two years, Xydas attended classes at the Santa Rosa Junior College in Petaluma, and began planning his future. He considered joining the Greek-Orthodox diocese or teaching music. But a family vacation in Greece derailed those plans when Xydas suffered a severe psychotic break that left him unable to return to school.
"My family accused me of not taking my meds, but I swear I was," he said emphatically. "What they don't understand is that even when I'm on my meds, things can change."