Seeking help: Hamilton mother hopes son will find help for mental illness

Lenee Willett of Hamilton has been challenged to find help for her 28-year-old son, who suffers from mental illness. “I want people to know that my son isn’t a monster,” she said. “He’s really not. He’s just sick and he needs help.”

Lenee Willett hopes someday that her son will come home again with a smile on his face and his eyes filled with peace.

It’s been a long time since she saw that last.

“Right now, he’s not the son that I raised for 28 years,” she said. “I want that son back.”

Over the past year, her 28-year-old son, Christopher Lee McCown, has been arrested three times after sudden outbursts at the family home south of Hamilton. She and her family have borne the brunt of the violence.

In September, she cringed when she read a newspaper account of her son attacking Ravalli County detention officers that said he bit, spat and threw punches while yelling he planned to murder the men. Two of the officers had to be treated at Hamilton hospital.

“He’s told me the TV is talking to him,” Willett said. “He said the telephone told him to he had to kill his older brother. He’s told me that I’m a robot. He thinks that a robot has taken me over and controlling what I say and do.”

Last week, she watched from a bench in a Ravalli District courtroom as officers led her son into the chamber. He had his eyes closed and she believes his ears were plugged. The judge ordered McCown to the Montana State Hospital for a 90-day evaluation to determine if he was fit to stand trial. 

Willett hopes it’s the beginning of his return home.

“When he was taking his medications, he was fine,” she said. “But then he would decide that he didn’t need it anymore and we would be back in this same situation. I believe he needs some form of medication and someone who will require him to take it.”

Willett has tried to be firm. After his arrests, she initially told him he couldn’t come home.

“It’s hard to disconnect my brain from my heart,” she said. “I know my son is mentally sick, but I also knew he was homeless. I couldn’t leave him out living on the street.”

And so he would come back home and the cycle would repeat itself.

“We love him so I want him fixed,” Willett said. “I want him to be the person that I know he can be. … I love him. He’s one of my three sons. I can’t give up on him. I want that smiling guy that I know is in there to come back again. I know my son is still inside there.”

Hamilton’s West House Crisis Facility director Kari Auclair said sometimes there are no good options for family members hoping to help loved ones suffering from mental illness.

“It’s one of the hardest conversations that we have here,” Auclair said. “We can offer education and options, but when it’s your family who is suffering, you want it fixed. You want someone to do something. … Sometimes the options are awful.”

Those options narrow once someone enters the court system.

“A lot of people don’t understand that mental illness is never a defense for criminal activity,” Auclair said. “That’s really hard to accept even when you are the one being hit or beaten.”

Hamilton’s West House serves as a voluntary short-term crisis stabilization facility for people experiencing mental health issues that also provides recovery-oriented treatment on an outpatient basis.

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“We’re here 24/7,” Auclair said. “We are the biggest tool in the toolbox for many families. While we can offer medications and treatment, it’s still up to the person to work with it or not. If they choose not to participate in treatment by not taking their meds, it doesn’t work.”

And the only way a person can be forced to take medication is through a court order.

“It’s a difficult dance and one that we have to do all the time,” Auclair said. “We work with the family to navigate those options. Sometimes those options are brutal for families to have to make.”

At a Missoula event on facing recovery, Auclair said she was approached by a man who offered his story about the challenges his family faced in addressing his 21-year-old daughter’s addiction to methamphetamine.

“He told me it was the hardest thing that he had ever had to do in his life,” she said. “He had to go into his baby girl’s room and tell her that if she didn’t get in the car with him to go get an assessment, she was going to have to leave the premises and that he would get a restraining order so she couldn’t return.”

He had tears in his eyes when he told Auclair the story.

“And you know what she did?” Auclair said. “She got in the car with him and it turned out to be the turning point. Families in the middle of this never know what it will take to reach that point.

“Sometimes it comes down to self-preservation when families are dealing with someone suffering from addiction or mental illness,” she said. “It can tear a family unit apart in seconds. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to choose to participate or not participate, and then the family has to do whatever it takes.

“I wish there was some kind of magic pill or potion that you could give someone to make it all right,” she said. “It’s so incredibly hard to watch someone make a choice that you know will put them on the wrong road, but you can’t make that choice for them. It’s up to them.

“It takes all of us working together to find a solution,” Auclair said.

In the Bitterroot Valley, families and professionals have gathered for almost a year to search for answers on how to address mental health issues in the community. The M.I.K.A. Mental Health Community Health Discussions began after a couple stepped forward to raise awareness of the issue after their son committed suicide following a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The next meeting will be held on Thursday, Nov. 21, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital’s Blodgett Conference Room. Everyone is welcome.

“We have engaged with a lot of people so far,” said MSU Extension Agent Katelyn Andersen, who serves as the group’s facilitator. “At this point, we don’t know what direction it’s going to take. We do believe in the power of community and by us coming together and talking about the issue and its impact on our community, we can come up with solutions that we might not even fathom at this point.

“Our goal really is to bring people together,” Andersen said. “We’ve done that. We know that by having people show up, we will be able to make a difference.”

Families who care for loved ones with mental illness often feel isolated. People outside their families often don’t understand the challenges they face.

“All I can do is not give up,” Willett said. “I have to just keep fighting for him and hope that he can get the help he needs. In the end, that’s all you really can do. You just have to keep moving forward and hope that someday he’ll come back to me.

“I want people to know that my son isn’t a monster,” she said. “He’s really not. He’s just sick and he needs help.”