My Grandson Survived A Suicide Attempt

Debbie Walker

His story is not that uncommon.

Photo by Tusik Only on Unsplash

*Suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or background. If you are feeling suicidal, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800–273–8255*

“Mama! Dustin set himself on fire!” screamed my daughter over the phone.


“Wait, slow down. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened, ” I said.

The Burning

My daughter told me the horrifying story of my grandson’s burning. About 3 am that morning, my grandson sat in the middle of a street in Denver, Colorado, and poured gasoline over the top of his head, and lit himself on fire.

The people in the convenience store ran outside with fire extinguishers and doused the flames. By that time, the fire ran down and burned his upper torso. The fumes and the flames he inhaled burned his esophagus and lungs.

My daughter caught the first flight from Las Vegas to Denver, and I was on standby in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the doctors called in the Hospital Chaplin because they did not expect him to survive past the night.

The Hospital

The doctors put my grandson in a medically induced coma for three weeks because his injuries were too severe for him to be awake. I asked if I could talk to him, but my daughter could not call me from the burn unit because they allowed no cell phones or videos.

However, after a few days and two Zoom calls with the Burn Unit team, the doctors granted my request to speak to Dustin. The nurses propped the phone up to my grandson’s ear while I talked and prayed for him.

Soon, the team noted a marked improvement. I believe prayer played a part in the healing of my grandson’s body.

The staff agreed.

The Voices

Four months later, my grandson is ready to leave the hospital for a rehab unit. When I asked why he burned himself, his answer was only two words.

The voices.

You see, Dustin is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with auditory and visual hallucinations. He told me that voices scream at him continually to kill himself.

And he has attempted suicide over 100 times.

Can you believe it? That is the number my daughter told me. He has run into traffic more times than I can count, Overdosed on drugs. Broken mirrors to cut his wrists and throat. Banged his head against the concrete. All from the demonic voices in his head. At least, that’s what he says.

Dustin has been suicidal since he was a teenager. He used a plastic knife on his first attempt a decade ago, and now his disease has become more deadly. It has affected the entire family, especially his mother.

She searched for long-term treatment for her son without success.

Broken Mental Health System

My grandson has been an inpatient on psychiatric units at least 150 times over the past 11 years in three different states. (52 times at one hospital, alone.) It is heartbreaking. His treatment is stabilization, medication, and release. A revolving door treatment plan.

After leaving the hospital, they delegate his needs and services to a case manager in the community who he never visits.

I believe the mental health system has failed us and is a contributing factor to his suffering. The whole family agrees he needs a lock-down facility for his own safety and that of others.

However, there are none.

President Ronald Reagan signed The Mental Systems Health Act of 1980, effectively closing mental health hospitals. This Act created community-based centers that do not meet the needs of the SMI (Severely Mentally Ill).

The results have been disastrous.

The change in the laws also reduced beds in state-run facilities intending to provide treatment in nursing homes and group homes. The economic factor further disenfranchises the mentally ill. According to the AMA Journal of Ethics:

“The current decentralized mental health system has benefited middle-class people with less severe disorders preferentially [20], leaving the majority of people with SMI who are either poor or have a more severe illness with inadequate services and a more difficult time integrating into a community.”

Dustin is one of this population.

He is homeless because of his mental illness. Since he won’t take his meds, he becomes delusional and runs off from every place he’s stayed.

One year, we lost him for about seven months. I became a virtual wheelchair detective, located him, and arranged for him to go back home.

What is the solution?

Treatment Options

I don’t know the answer. But I know that a large percent of the homeless, like Dustin, are SMI. I’ve seen it with my own eyes because I was a case manager with the homeless population for five years.

They came to us after being released from a state-run facility with a bus ticket to the homeless shelter. We were under-funded and restricted in the services we could provide.

But what does all this have to do with the burning of my grandson? Everything! As he is a non-compliant SMI paranoid schizophrenic who lacks support and services and is homeless — I say everything.

However, there is one program that can make a difference in the lives of our mentally ill. I say our because this problem is a national epidemic. These people are our people.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services:

The Program of Assertive Community Treatment (PACT) model has been in existence nationally for nearly 30 years and is an effective, evidenced-based, outreach-oriented, service delivery model using a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week approach to community-based mental health services. PACT delivers comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation services to consumers in their homes, at work and in community settings. The program reaches clients that traditional services can’t seem to engage. A major goal of PACT is to reduce the need for inpatient care by providing assistance with basic needs, increasing medication adherence, keeping families together, and securing competitive employment.

That is the intent, but the reality can be very different.

If the person is mentally incapable of taking their meds regularly or maintaining stable housing, the PACT team’s impact is reduced.

Another factor limiting PACT’s effectiveness is its high employee turnover rate. The stress and poor training for the job creates a defensive culture of them vs me. This often minimizes the effectiveness and implementation of services rendered.

In conclusion

Again, I do not know why my grandson has this disease. But we need to address the mental illness epidemic in our country. Maybe with awareness and advocacy on a personal, local, and national level, together, we can help ease the suffering of the severely mentally ill.

If only just one, namely, my grandson.

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