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Tribute to Irvo Otieno and Joshua McLemore/How to Help People with Mental Illness

Rebecca Wilkinson Artwork
Joshua McLemore
Irvo Otieno

Tribute to People Who Have Died Because of Ignorance about Mental Illness
We pay tribute this month to two young men that sadly died as a result of their mental illness being grossly misunderstood and mistreated. Although we usually try to focus on uplifting messages in our newsletters, the cases of Irvo Otieno and Joshua McLemore, which have been in the news recently, we felt compelled to share their stories, both for their sake and for our commitment to changing the way people with mental illness are treated.

Irvo Otieno/Handcuffed/Suffocated
Irvo died last week after having been arrested for burglary for taking the solar panels from a neighbor’s home and for exhibiting erratic and bizarre behaviors when he was detained. Afte three days in a holding cell, police officers brought him to a psychiatric hospital.  During the intake process, because Irvo was apparently resisting, he was pinned down by 7 deputies and 3 hospital staff, even though he had handcuffs and ankle restraints so he could not have posed any real threat. They piled on top of and held him down for 11 minutes during which time he suffocated and died.

Irvo with his brother, Leon Ochieng and his mother, Caroline Ouko

Irvo was the Peacemaker in His Family
But his family members don’t just defend him, they say that although he had mental difficulties, he was the peacemaker in their family, that he loved people and he always tried to look at things from a different perspective. Not the rabid beast that the manner of his death might suggest.

Joshua McLemore/Psychotic and Starving for 3 Weeks
Joshua starved to death after spending 3 weeks in a holding cell waiting for a psychiatric evaluation. His landlord had found him in his apartment naked and confused and so paramedics took him to the hospital. During his intake, he laid down on the floor and when a nurse touched his shoulder to check on him, he pulled her hair. Joshua was sent to detention for psychiatric evaluation. He was psychotic and refused to eat and bath. He did not receive any kind of psychiatric attention and died from starvation in a cell littered with food, trash, and body fluids.

Joshua and his girlfriend Abigail Smith

Joshua was “Just a Good Person”
Joshua had schizophrenia and had struggled with drug addiction which had gotten worse after his girlfriend, Abigail Smith, whom he had met in treatment was killed in a car accident. He had remained close with his girlfriend’s mother, Susan Wildin, who described him as sweet and kind, “Just a good person.”  Perhaps not surprising, he never recovered after Abigail.

They May Be Erratic and Scary
It is quite likely that by the time Joshua and Irvo got on the radar, they were behaving in ways that were disturbing and frightening, and they might have appeared to be potentially dangerous either to themselves or others. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do if we encountered someone in any of those states. But sadly they were responded to in ways that were not only inadequate but actually escalated their behaviors. That simply would not have happened if they had gotten the right kind of help.

In Crisis Leave It To The Pros But How To Help People with Mental Illness at Other Times?
This question came up recently when a colleague who usually works with brain injuries asked Rebecca about a new client that unexpectedly had to be hospitalized after having a manic episode. The colleague had never worked with someone with bipolar disorder and wanted to know how to handle the situation. Rebecca’s immediate response was “Ask her.

It’s Different for Each Person
Of course that’s easy for Rebecca to say—she has worked extensively with people with mental illness–but it is that very experience that has led her to understand that although many people may share a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, depression, how it manifests is vastly different for each person.  So you can’t know how to treat them until you know how they uniquely experience their illness.  And the easiest way to learn that is to ask.

Things That People Might Experience
People with mental illness are usually having trouble in particular domains of their lives–their feelings, their thoughts, and their behaviors.  They might also be struggle with physical illness and/or illness.

Below is a list of things we might want to know about what someone is going through in those areas:

  • Do you feel bad a lot and if so, is it sadness or grief?  Anxiety?  Anger or resentment? Guilt and/or shame?
  • Do you also have positive emotions like feelings of peace, calm, joy, excitement, interest, humor?
  • Do you have mood swings, or is it fairly consistent?
  • What makes you feel better?  What makes it worse?
  • Does it change throughout the day? Week?  Month? Year?
  • Are your feelings easily triggered by outside events or are they more about your internal state?
  • Do you feel numb and cut off from your feelings or are you just more naturally not a feeling person?
  • Do you have negative thoughts a lot?
  • If so, do they make you feel discouraged and keep you from doing what you would like to do?
  • Do you sometimes believe things that other people say aren’t true?
  • Does that make you feel unsafe?
  • Do you have difficulty trusting people and think that they want to cause you harm?
  • What makes you feel safer?
  • Do you hear voices?
  • Do you feel like they are just loud thoughts or do they feel like they are outside of you?
  • Do they said negative things or positive things?
  • Do you see things that other people say aren’t there?
  • If you do, does what you see frighten you?  Or is it funny, pleasant, magical?
  • When you see things does it make you behave in ways that other people thing aren’t safe?
  • Do you behave erratically so that people have a difficult time counting on you?
  • Do your behaviors get in the way of your relationships? Your work? Your health? Your plans and dreams?
  • Do you get arrested or get in trouble with the law a lot?
  • Do you have a hard time holding a job?
  • Do any of the things that you experience get in the way of you being able to do what you need to do?
  • Do you experience a lot of pain?
  • Is it made worse by any of the other areas above?
  • Do you struggle with eating, sleeping, energy, focus?
  • Do you feel resilient or is it a challenge to recover from setbacks, even minor ones?
  • When are you at your best and what helps you be that way?
  • What do you feel like the challenges you face mean about you and your life?
  • What helps you the most?

The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI)
If you are unsure how to help someone (or yourself) who seems to be struggling with a mental illness, NAMI is probably one of the greatest resources.  They are devoted to helping people understand mental illness and advocate for themselves and others to get help. For example, they have support groups, some for the person with the illness and others for family members and friends.  They also have local NAMI chapters for different States, cities or regions which can be found here.

Peer to Peer Support Groups
Probably one of the best resources for people with mental illness is someone who has their own personal experience with it.   Mental Health American provides resources for exploring those options.   If you are in the DC area, the District offers one of these training program.

To Learn More About Irvo’s and Joshua stories
To learn more about Joshua’s case, click here.  Although he had clearly been behaving strangely, there is a good chance that if his mother had been called or a mental health professional, he never would have needed to leave his home.  And, although he showed some aggressiveness in the hospital, it was obvious that he was in distress and withdrawn.  We would suggest that the nurse might have known better than to let her guard down with a patient in that state.  When it comes down to it, Joshua died because he was agitated and pulled a nurse’s hair.

Click here to learn more about the details of Irvo’s situation.   It is clear in his case as well that once police got involved it escalated drastically.  In the long run, he died because he was behaving  bizarrely, not violently.  He had not been a danger to anyone and his behavior could easily have been managed with redirection, especially because we know that his mother was there and could have helped intervene.  His death was completely preventable.

In Irvo’s case there is a good possibility that underlying racial dynamics were also at play, but in both situations it is clear that ignorance about mental illness led to tragic consequences.

Jordan Neely impersonating Michael Jackson/In a chokehold that killed him

Update 5/9/23
We now sadly add Jordan Neely to this page.  He died last week on a New York subway.  He was held in a choke hold and suffocated.  Although he had been behaving erratically, he was not hurting anyone and did not have any weapons.

Jordan was a Michael Jackson impersonator and used to perform in the subway stations.  He was also on a list for homeless people looking for housing.