It was the middle of the night, and no help could be found in Oklahoma.
Every mental health facility that Janet Anderson called was full.
So, in hopes of finding help for Anderson's teenage son, Theo, the family packed up the car and headed from Oklahoma City to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“He was so scared and upset that he said, ‘Mom, we just need to go,'” Anderson said. “So we picked up in the middle of the night and left for the clinic and didn't have an appointment or anything.”
Anderson is raising money in remembrance of her son, Theo, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Anderson will walk in the National Alliance on Mental Illness Oklahoma's annual walk Saturday at Stars and Stripes Park at 3701 S Lake Hefner.
Anderson's team, named In Memory of Theo Anderson, has raised more than $4,000. Her son died in November 2009 from a rare heart defect. He was 18.
When Anderson first found her son barely alive, she thought he had tried to commit suicide. They didn't know he had a heart defect until after an autopsy was performed.
Anderson was always in awe of how kind and accepting Theo was.
He was an overall happy child who played football and baseball, she said. But at 15 years old, things changed.
He began to act differently. At first, Anderson thought it was just normal teenager behavior. But one night, Theo woke her up and was speaking incoherently.
He was frightened, and Anderson knew something was wrong. Theo was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depressive illness.
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. It often develops in a person's late teens or early adult years. At least half of all cases start before age 25.
Theo never reached recovery from his illness. The medication never worked. Each time he got on a new medicine, Anderson hoped it would help her son, and there would be a week or so where Theo would think it was helping.
The family also struggled to find a good psychiatrist.
The first psychiatrist the family saw told Theo to get off drugs for a month, basing his analysis on Theo's black rock band T-shirt and punk rock-style haircut.
“He didn't even know us, he didn't know Theo — it was incredible,” Anderson said. “That's how our experience started out.”
Oklahoma has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the country. In Oklahoma, more than 620,000 adults have a mental illness, according to the state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department. Of those, about 146,000 have a “serious” mental illness and an estimated 135,000 have experienced serious psychological stress in the past year.
About 70 percent of poor adults who need mental health treatment don't get the care they need.
Forty percent of young people in Oklahoma who need mental health services don't receive them, according to the state mental health department.
Theo found solace in writing. He would take his laptop, go on a walk and find a peaceful place to write.
“It also helped us to see inside his head because he was so smart and so with it in so many ways, and he just couldn't function,” Anderson said.
“And it was so good to see exactly what he was seeing and feeling through his poetry because he wasn't really able to express it in conversation.”
One of the last times Anderson remembers seeing Theo happy was when he was 17. He and his friends planned an outdoor concert on Halloween at the Anderson's home. The boys played a bunch of music and felt like they were at Woodstock.
For Janet, it was a bittersweet moment.
“He was getting really sick by then, and it was so hard for him to keep it together,” she said. “I thought that moment in time was such a blessing. The bad things and the good things don't converge very often when you're in a state like that, and it was really nice to see him so happy.”
At a glance
To join the NAMI walk
The Oklahoma branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness will host its annual walk Saturday at Stars and Stripes Park at 3701 S Lake Hefner. Check-in is at 8 a.m. The walk begins at 9:15 a.m.
About mental illness
Mental illnesses are brain disorders that often affect people in the prime of life. Without treatment, the consequences can be dire — unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration and suicide.
About NAMI Oklahoma
NAMI Oklahoma provides free education, support and advocacy in hopes of raising awareness that recovery from a mental health illness is possible.