Murrieta family blames California's mental health system for 20-year-old son's death

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Friday, September 3, 2021
Murrieta family blames mental health system for son's death
A Murrieta mother says her 20-year-old son died after a broken mental health system failed him.

MURRIETA, Calif. (KABC) -- Erika Martinez-Young's memories of her son Eric's childhood are laid out on her dining room table.

There is an award for being a "Buddy" to special-needs children in elementary school, books on birds, and rocks painted to look like the cover of Pink Floyd albums.

Overshadowing these memories are her son's lifelong battle with mental illness and her struggle to get him help.

"He had an amazing memory for everything," said Martinez-Young, "and because they saw he wasn't failing in school, he was deemed as not needing help or special needs."

But by the time Eric was 14 years old, he had been hospitalized three times on involuntary psychiatric hold known as a so-called "5150" -- police code for a person who needs serious mental health treatment. He was also diagnosed as bipolar with psychotic features.

Martinez-Young and Eric's stepfather, Christopher Young, turned to the school district for help.

"There are no level-14 locked facilities in California that provide residential treatment for children," recalled Young.

Eric was first sent to a facility in Nevada, then moved to another one in Texas.

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"That is where he completely changed," said Martinez-Young. "They did a full psych evaluation, a really long one, testing, additional testing that had not been done before on him. And they found his diagnosis to be schizoaffective disorder."

In Texas, Eric flourished with treatment, support and medication and was able to go home with the understanding his treatment needed to be continued.

But again the Youngs had a difficult time getting Eric help, and again Eric began to spiral back into paranoia, hallucinations and hear voices.

"We would provide proof after proof after proof -- letters from psychiatrists of all the places he's been, including with his 5150s. We shouldn't have to fight the school system," said Martinez-Young.

Then at 18, Eric walked away from treatment and his home, into what his mother described as a cycle of homelessness, involuntary hospitalizations and incarcerations.

"They are not criminals. It all starts with mental health," she said. "My son never said he wanted to be -- have this mental health issue and start using drugs and end up in the street homeless, getting beat up, just going through so many horrific experiences."

Martinez-Young and her husband turned to the county, asking to have their son placed under the county's conservatorship in the hopes of having him put in a secure facility for treatment. Despite years of documentation and evidence, they were denied.

"If he got 5150 in Riverside and went to the hospital in San Bernardino, Riverside County, APS, ETS, Public Guardian -- they are like, 'Oh, he is in San Bernardino. We can't do anything,'" said Young.

California's mental health care system is divided among 58 counties, with services that can vary widely and are not interconnected. Last month, the state unveiled its Behavior Health Plan which includes $12 billion investment over two years to confront the homelessness crisis, helping the most mentally ill individuals move off the streets and into housing with wraparound services. It includes $3 billion to create 22,000 new beds and treatment slots, a component of the 42,000 new homeless housing units that will be created under the California Comeback Plan.

The plan also calls for screening people up to 25 years of age for mental health needs, but these changes come too late for Eric.

"At the time of his death he had been 5150 over 40 times and had at least five 5250s," said Young.

Martinez-Young says she was told her son had been released from a Banning jail. With no resources or money, her son asked to go to a mental health urgent care. He was taken to one in Indio and released 24 hours later. Eric was later found unresponsive along side a roadway in 112-degree heat.

"They rushed him to the ER and when he got there he went into a heatstroke. They couldn't save him," Martinez-Young said through tears.

He was 20 years old.

"If we can put millions of dollars in jails and prisons, why don't we try something different for our children with mental illness?" she said.