Club Meds

The mental-health-care system says Lynda Sue Dale, a young mentally ill mother, is ineligible for treatment -- until she informs the bureaucrats she's talking to New Times

Lynda Dale is right. The mental-health system that's now grappling to treat her does exhibit many dysfunctional symptoms that some of its clients do -- paranoia, irrationality, finger-pointing.

The professionals who operate the system and the government bureaucrats paid to oversee it repeat a similar refrain: We don't have enough money to do things the way they ought to be done.

Nancy Dale has fought an uphill struggle with her youngest daughter, Lynda, for years.
Paolo Vescia
Nancy Dale has fought an uphill struggle with her youngest daughter, Lynda, for years.
Peoria-based counselor Ruth-Ann Robinson.
Paolo Vescia
Peoria-based counselor Ruth-Ann Robinson.

Certainly, public behavioral-health systems are underfunded, and Arizona's ranks about in the middle of all states on the basis of per capita funding.

But it's not all about money. A recent study of Arizona's mental-health system notes that "many concrete and measurable service improvements could be implemented without more money."

That's a rather passive way of saying the system does lousy with the money it does have. The court monitor assigned to oversee implementation of Arnold v. Sarn -- a class-action lawsuit that mandates sweeping services for Arizona's seriously mentally ill -- was far more direct in a report issued last month.

"Findings of this 2000 review are disheartening," Linda Glenn wrote in her update. "The current mental health system has installed multiple procedures and practices aimed at limiting services, but has no evident mechanisms, infrastructure, or adequate resources to ensure that individuals with a serious mental illness receive the services they need." (Emphasis added.)

Glenn seems to be saying that becoming a member of the fairly exclusive club -- about 14,000 in Maricopa County -- guarantees nothing.

Treatment for the seriously mentally ill in Arizona is more triage than long-term. At its best, the system provides prompt treatment at an urgent-care center, or a heart-to-heart with a sympathetic case manager. At its worst, it does nothing, or makes it so difficult for people to get services that they don't bother to try anymore.

Others, such as Lynda Dale -- her protestations to the contrary -- often can't decide whether they truly do want help, except on their own, often untenable terms.

"That's part of the illness," explains Ruth-Ann Robinson of the New Start Counseling Service, who has treated Lynda sporadically since 1996. "Getting your meds and this and that is nice, but it doesn't necessarily make you that much better. Being seriously mentally ill is a lifetime thing."

Lynda's travails aren't extraordinary to those who work inside Arizona's mental-health system. Nor does it startle those who know firsthand how people with mental illnesses can devastate their loved ones.

"She's capable of almost anything," says Nancy Dale, a certified nursing assistant who lives with her other daughter, Crystal, and Linda Bauer, "and I just don't trust her or the system to keep her from hurting herself or somebody else."

As unstable as Lynda is, however, she's more fortunate than thousands of other county residents with enduring mental problems. Too many other troubled souls don't know how or don't want to apply for benefits, or they give up the fight when the system overwhelms them with paperwork and other hurdles.

Lynda also is lucky in that she isn't homeless, has a phone, and has a mother who helps her time and again, at great emotional and financial expense.

"Bless her heart, she caused us to lose just about everything over the years," says her mother.

That's not hyperbole. Nancy describes being evicted from apartments after repeated loud brawls with her daughter, and having had to quit jobs so she or Bauer could keep an eye on Lynda during the day.

"I'm a mother saying this, and I don't like saying it, but I don't like her sometimes. And I don't want anyone to get seriously hurt because of her."

Lynda Dale was born in April 1980, the product, her mother says, of a date rape. Lynda was two years younger than her half-sister, Crystal, who was born during Nancy Dale's marriage.

Nancy is white, as is her ex-husband. Lynda's father was black, which would become a consuming issue for the little girl as she grew up.

"I always was treated different because I'm like a black person in a white family," Lynda says. "It was always Crystal this, Crystal that, 'Why can't you be like her?'"

"There never was a lot of love between us," Crystal says of her relationship with her younger sibling. "We could never be tight, because no one can be tight with her."

Crystal has had her own struggles: As a youngster, doctors diagnosed her as a dyslexic, and she had to take special-education classes throughout her school years. A dropout, she says she later earned her general equivalency diploma, and now holds a steady job.

Says their mother, "I think I knew when Lynda was a baby that there was something wrong. She'd be up all night just sitting in bed, never sleeping, never eating. Then she started tearing up her clothes, and cried constantly. Later on, she defied everything I'd tell her, and what the teachers would tell her at school."

In elementary school, Nancy says, "Lynda ran smack into prejudice. She couldn't understand why kids didn't like her because of her skin color. 'Why do they hate me? I didn't do anything to them.' But she also got good at shifting blame. She called CPS [Child Protective Services] on me a bunch of times, when she'd get mad about something I said or tried to make her do. She was depressed. It was scary."

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