*Trigger warning; contains some detail about the mistreatment and death of a man with mental illness*
It seems like every day I hear of a new situation where someone with mental illness has been taken advantage of, abused, or killed with little repercussion. It isn’t every day, however, that I hear about this happening in the small town of Coupeville I grew up in on Whidbey Island in Washington State.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen there. I definitely received some spotty (at best) mental healthcare when I lived there 15 years ago, but reports from my family, friends, the community, and the local news have detailed a story much more disturbing than I could have imagined happening in my tiny, sleepy town on my own.
Keaton Ferris, a 25 year old local man who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder was in the Island County jail after not showing up for a hearing. Two weeks later, he was found dead in his cell, with the autopsy report showing he had been denied enough food and water to survive; he died of dehydration.
His parents had been asking to visit him but staff denied all of their attempts to see their son, and they were never told that he was physically unwell.
Allegedly Keaton was denied his medication in jail and quickly became psychotic, at which point the staff was unwilling to treat him properly because they were afraid of his violent behavior.
(Keep in mind, there is a hospital three blocks from the jail, and though there are hospitals in Washington state designed to house and treat people in the criminal justice system with extreme mental illness, they are often too full to take on new patients, leaving them at local hospitals or jails that are completely unequipped to manage in a professional way.)
While the staff neglected to properly feed and hydrate Keaton, they also did not check on him regularly (as policy dictates). By the time he was found deceased, the coroner has reported that he had been dead several hours without notice.
I guess this situation is hitting pretty close to home for me because I spent the first 18 years of my life in that town. Well, that and I know what being on the receiving end of discrimination because of mental illness feels like, even to the point of having staff withhold my medications and becoming very ill. I feel lucky that I have made it to this point, but as a young woman with mental illness, the writing is on the wall.
If this could happen to Keaton Ferris it could happen to me, and that is a truly terrifying notion.
My goal is not to instill fear in anyone, but just to tell stories of my experiences and the experiences of those around me who can’t speak for themselves. Equal rights, proper treatment, and the acknowledgement of our medical needs in times of mental crisis seem like the basic human rights anyone deserves, right?
So where are they?
There was recently a rally in front of the jail where community members gathered to protest the treatment Keaton received, and while I wouldn’t ever suggest that one young man’s torture and death is a positive thing, I am certain that this situation will touch the lives of every person in that town, and I expect people will begin to think differently about mental illness… begin to act differently about it… and that is how the change begins.
You probably aren’t part of this small community, but that doesn’t mean this story wont touch you, or infuriate you, or inspire you to change even one or two small things in your life that will make a difference when we put them all together.
I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning more or helping support our community’s cause of demanding equal rights and treatment for those with mental illness in the criminal justice system can find all news articles, videos, and up to date information at Keatonh2o.com