TAMPA, Fla. — Millions of Americans suffer from some kind of mental health issue. Some people struggling with mental illness end up wandering the streets and getting lost. This may happen more than you think.
In-depth reporter Anthony Hill is uncovering this issue. He spoke with two Tampa Bay area mothers who are currently looking for their adult children. Plus, he’s digging deeper into what’s being done to make it easier for state and local law enforcement with locating missing persons who are struggling with mental illness
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 5% of American adults experienced serious mental health illness in 2019. That’s about one in every 20 adults. Now there’s an effort to find missing people who struggle with serious mental disorders faster.
“I’ve been through a mental breakdown. I had to go to treatment because of it,” said Vivina Barnwell who’s been searching for her son, Peiarre, for five years. “Sometimes twice a week, just looking for him and putting out flyers.”
Her son suffers from schizophrenia. He went missing in November of 2016 in New Port Richey. The last time her son was seen was in 2018 when he was caught on surveillance video wandering near South Howard Avenue and South Swann Avenue in Tampa.
“Me and my daughter, they (New Port Richey Police) sent it to us and asked us was that him and then we said, ‘yes, that’s him.’”
By the time Tampa Police got there, he was gone.
“Usually, you know, if she’s gone or she’s disoriented or she takes off in her manic state, it could be a few days and she would call,” said Bobbi Ann Depierro who’s been looking for her daughter, Casey, since August.
Depierro said Casey suffers from bipolarism which stemmed from a brain injury she had after being in a car accident. Bobbi said her daughter ran away and the last place she was seen was in Indiana.
“I’ve reached out to police here. I’ve reached out to police in Indiana. I’ve reached out to hospitals and shelters, but since she’s an adult, nobody wants to give me information.”
“Mental illness is really common in the United States,” said Dr. Kyaien Conner, professor of Mental Health Law and Policy at USF. “Nearly one in five U.S. adults are living with a mental illness, which is about 51-million people and intellectual disabilities are also very common.”
Dr. Conner said our mental health system, especially here in Florida, lags far behind the demand because it hasn’t been able to provide adequate and effective services in a timely manner for the people who need it the most.
“Many of these individuals are left with no resources and ultimately end up homeless,” Dr. Conner said.
We’ve all heard an Amber Alert notifying us that a child in the area has gone missing or been abducted. Florida currently has three alert systems: An Amber Alert for children, a Silver Alert for senior citizens over the age of 60 and suffer from some kind of cognitive disability, and a Blue Alert for police officers who’ve been killed or seriously injured, but in July, the state passed a new Purple Alert for people over the age of 26 with a mental, cognitive or developmental disability who go missing.
“So, there was kind of this missing gap of people that were vulnerable, that we needed to make sure that there was some kind of alert system for them,” said Olivia Babis with Disability Rights Florida.
Purple Alerts will be seen on lottery terminals in gas stations and grocery stores, as well as highway signs and text messages. The state’s Purple Alert system will go into effect in July of 2022. Here’s a link to the entire Purple Alert bill.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is also doing its part to better equip its deputies in interacting with people with mental illness through its Project Safe Encounter program. It allows you to register yourself or a loved one so that in the event of an emergency, law enforcement has detailed information about the person, allowing them to know how to handle the situation before arriving on scene.
“This program is so tremendous because it allows our sheriff office to provide a customized response to anyone who has special needs,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said.
Unfortunately, as for the two mothers interviewed in this piece, as of yet, we have no happy ending, just hope that one day their children will come home or information that can provide closure.
“It’s horrific. It really is. It’s stressful, painful, not knowing where your child is or the elements that are out there and things that can happen to her,” said Bobbi.
Vivina said, “I rather know than not to know and I wouldn’t wish this upon any parent because you’re not going to be the same.”