By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
On November 19, 1998, Robert Arthur Pearson interrupted a substance abuse users meeting at a building on Harwin Drive. Police report those in attendance said Pearson acted in a bizarre manner and said he wanted to commit suicide. Police were called, and officers took him to the Ben Taub NeuroPsychiatric Center for observation.
On December 31, 1998 -- New Year's Eve -- Pearson had been drinking in the 2400 block of Winrock when he slashed his wrists. He started fighting with the paramedics and tried to refuse treatment, so the police were called. Paramedics had to give the bandages and other emergency medical gear to police, and Pearson kept pulling the bandages off his wrists. He was taken to city jail and then sent on to Ben Taub. During the trip, he repeatedly banged his head on the cage of the patrol car. Officers had to stop and put leg restraints on him for the trip to the hospital.
On February 19, 1999, Pearson was in the residence of a female acquaintance in the 6300 block of Briar Rose. After he had been drinking, he ingested an unknown prescription drug. He broke a mirror and used the shards to cut his wrists. Uncooperative with police and paramedics, who took him to Memorial Hospital-Southwest for treatment, Pearson went on to Ben Taub's psych unit.
Just four days later, on February 23, Pearson, out and about again, went into the restroom of a business at 4100 Westheimer. He defecated on the floor and rubbed the excrement on the floors and walls and himself. He ran around the first-floor hallway with no pants, then became tangled in a chain-link fence outside. He was transferred to city jail and charged with public intoxication and criminal mischief. And once again, he was admitted to Ben Taub's psychiatric unit.
On March 5, Pearson threatened suicide inside the McDonald's restaurant at Main and Texas. He showed police his scars from earlier attempts and was taken to Ben Taub.
On June 14, Pearson had been drinking again and climbed a Primeco cellular transmission tower in the 6200 block of Skyline. He told nearby workers that he had had a falling out with a female and was going to kill himself. Police responded, talked him into climbing down and took him to Ben Taub's psych unit.
On July 23, security personnel at a hospital at 920 Frostwood called police when Pearson tried to get on the roof and jump off, saying he wanted to commit suicide. He was taken to Ben Taub's psych unit.
On September 12, Pearson turned up at Mama's Cafe at 6019 Westheimer. He was found hanging by his neck from a "rope" fashioned from his own shirt. A Houston Fire Department ambulance was taking him to Ben Taub when he regained consciousness and tried to open the back of the vehicle to jump out. The medics pulled the ambulance off the highway in the 4200 block of the Southwest Freeway to calm him, but Pearson jumped out onto the feeder road and ran. Police found him behind a building. He was abusive to officers, although they convinced him to calm down and get back in the ambulance. Police rode with him and restrained him. He was admitted to the psych unit at Ben Taub.
On September 29, Pearson returned to his perch atop the Primeco tower. He again threatened suicide. After a couple of hours of talking by SWAT officers and a police negotiator, he came down.
Police again took him to Ben Taub's psych unit; however, this time the doctor examining him refused to admit him. The doctor said Pearson was no danger to himself or others even though he'd been released from that same ward only five days earlier, officers reported. The doctor told police Pearson had gone to the tower only to find shelter and get something to eat, officers said.
On November 7, the Harris County Sheriff's Office handled Pearson after someone spotted him pouring gasoline on himself. He was admitted to Houston Northwest Medical Center and held for three or four days before being released again.
On November 11, in perhaps his best starring role to date, 44-year-old Robert Arthur Pearson returned once again to three of his favorite activities: drinking, climbing and getting naked. Bolstered by a couple of unpaid-for beers at Cabo's Mix-Mex Grill downtown, the self-described poet strolled across the street to climb to the top of the building housing the trendy Solero restaurant. Performing for the late lunchtime crowd, Pearson shed his clothes, threw them to the ground three stories below and proceeded to tear off parts of the building and toss them down, too. Initial amusement on the part of onlookers turned to dismay when masonry heaved from the building smashed the windshield of one parked car and dented others.
Police arrived, closed off Prairie Street to traffic, sealed Solero's customers inside the building for their safety and called the negotiating team. It took more than 30 minutes for the unit to arrive, though, because they were off duty, it being Veteran's Day, a city holiday. By 3:10 p.m. negotiators were able to give Pearson a bedsheet to wrap around himself, the Houston Chronicle was able to take its tasteful photo that ran on page 41A of the next day's paper, and Pearson finally gave it up and surrendered. He was taken to Ben Taub's psych unit and admitted. He reportedly had been upset that he couldn't afford to buy the medication prescribed for him at Houston Northwest.
Okay now, everyone, is there anybody who needs any more CLUES? Robert Arthur Pearson is a man in serious danger of killing himself and maybe hurting or killing some other people on his way out. The brain-dead can see this one coming.
So what does that say about the mental health system in Houston? All polite qualifiers aside, what it says is: It's not working. In fact, you might say it is inadequate. You might even say, if you were a rude and vulgar person, frustrated by a seeming obliviousness on the part of mental health experts, well, if you were that kind of rude and vulgar person, you might even say it sucks.
Mental health folk aren't allowed to talk about "specifics." What that means is without a patient's permission, they can't discuss specific cases. They can talk only in generalities. And while those generalities are certainly understandable for the necessary good of protecting an individual's privacy, they can make for a very roundabout path to understanding why Robert Arthur Pearson keeps getting hauled in and turned out on the street again within days.
Basically the system works like this: If someone exhibits signs of mental distress that could be a danger to himself or others, he can be voluntarily committed. A person can also be involuntarily committed for the same reasons, if someone else can legally prove those criteria to a court's satisfaction. Another route is for a person who is hauled to county jail to behave in a strange enough way to be assessed on the third floor there and if needed, taken on to Ben Taub's aforementioned psych unit.
The Ben Taub facility is designed for 24-hour crisis management: an assessment, stabilization as much as possible and a quick stay. If it can be established that someone needs longer treatment, the person can be moved on to the Harris County Psychiatric Center, where, spokeswoman Geri Konigsberg says, the average stay is ten days. Again, though, this is not long-term treatment. This is the acute care inpatient facility serving the county's indigent population and is part of the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center.
If someone is really messed up and a case can be established for longer treatment, the patient is referred to Rusk State Hospital.
Or, as happens much more often, a patient brought in for initial assessment will be referred to one of the clinics throughout the city operated by the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.
The clinic system is far from perfect. Clients must take buses to get there. They must make it to their appointments on time. If they don't, or if they don't show, they are bumped from the system and have to reapply to be admitted.
What's most crucial, the clients themselves are responsible for taking their medicine. Many do not. In fact, according to Lieutenant Robert Cain, head of HPD's hostage negotiating team, 90 percent of the people having psychotic episodes when picked up by police are not taking their medicine. They don't like the side effects, which can be debilitating, or they get to feeling better and they just don't think they need it. They cannot be forced to take their medicine.
Steve Schnee is the executive director of the MHMRA, the gatekeeper of public mental health dollars for the indigent in Harris County.
As he explains it, the law requires that a mentally ill person be placed in the least restrictive environment possible. A person may need continued treatment and care, but once a person stops being a danger to himself and others, he is expected to receive that care in the least restrictive way. If a patient makes it only as far as Ben Taub's psych unit, the next step down is back out in society.
When patients reject mental health treatment, they become the recyclers in the mental health system. And this is costly. "They recycle back into the most expensive parts of the system," Schnee says. "We see people in the community who go in and out of the system."
Any talk of mental health in Harris County gets back to money rapidly. There are limited mental health dollars available for treating the indigent. Texas is 43rd in the United States in per capita spending on mental health. The system is stretched beyond belief.
Critics say that thanks to the directions of the Texas Legislature, the mental health authority has become pretty much a service industry for Medicaid patients, giving them preferences for slots, and is leaving the uninsured indigents who don't have Medicaid.
"Funding streams for the uninsured are woefully inadequate," Schnee acknowledges. MHMRA has to identify the people who have "third party resources," i.e., Medicaid, and set aside treatment spaces for them, he says. It used to be that 40 percent of all the patients it treated had Medicaid, he says. That has increased, which means that the numbers of uninsured patients it is able to see are shrinking.
Betsy Swartz, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston, an advocacy group for the mentally ill, says, "At least half if not more of the current MHMR population are not Medicaid eligible."
Swartz also says that even if the uninsured get mental health treatment, the "benefits package" they receive is less than what the Medicaid patients get.
Lieutenant Cain of the HPD hostage negotiating team projects tones of frustration and resignation. It is his group, working with SWAT, that is called upon when a troubled person makes his stand.
When things go wrong and the mentally ill person ends up getting shot by police, then police are blamed. When things go right and the person is talked into surrendering and is taken to a mental health facility, relief is short-lived because of the revolving door of almost instant release.
Officers enter the scene from the start at a disadvantage. Police are there as a last resort, Cain says. "We're coming in after everyone else has failed."
Although they do have specialized training (and the city is trying to train more of its officers to deal with the mentally ill), "we aren't psychologists or psychiatrists," Cain says.
Nationally, violent public incidents are on the upswing. Locally, a lot of people are not able to get the services they need, he says.
It's just not a priority. "When do you get somebody's attention? We go out on these cases all the time," Cain says.
It becomes a priority, Cain says, only when an officer shoots someone. "You have the family who is really heartbroken. It is devastating for them. But it is also devastating for the officer who has to live the rest of his life with doing something he never wanted to do."
Cain doesn't want to be seen as negative. Still, he is willing to say that something isn't working right, not when the police come and spend hours talking someone down, only to find that person out on the streets again almost immediately. He is afraid that one of his officers will be hurt.
Track through Robert Arthur Pearson's résumé one more time. He's getting more public, more dramatic, more violent. He has always been abusive to police and paramedics, no matter how many times they save his life.
In the end, police won't be able to save him. He sure can't save himself. And the mental health folk in town, well, they try to do good work, you hope, but all this tut-tutting from the safety of their offices, blaming regulations and not enough dollars for this sad state of affairs, well, it just sounds like the Me-no-Alamo syndrome to the max. Legislators, well, they've gone home for another two years before they tackle funding again. No help there.
So as long as the public is going to watch this story played to its sad end, we might as well make some money off it. Let's bet on the day that Robert Arthur Pearson, accidentally or otherwise, makes good on his suicide threats. Maybe with the money we raise we can get some mental health help for somebody else. Let's make the wager more interesting by guessing which way he'll go. Will he accidentally fall off a tall building? Slide into a high-voltage wire on a tower? Force some poor police officer to shoot him when he charges the officer or tries to hurt someone else?
Because if nothing else is certain, be certain of this: Robert Arthur Pearson is going to be in the papers again. And it's not going to be in a good way. Watch for it. Blood on the streets. Crazy times.
Robert Arthur Pearson? He's out there somewhere. The system won't say where. May not even know. But he's not in Ben Taub anymore. They released him days ago.
Editor's note: At final deadline, Cain's HPD crew had not dealt again with Pearson -- instead, it was the Harris County Sheriff's negotiating team. Deputies reported that Pearson, on the afternoon of Friday, November 19, climbed a 40-foot radio transmission tower of a medical center at 710 FM 1960 West. He stripped to his jeans and acted crazy for a couple of hours before being talked down about 6:30 p.m., deputies said. He was taken into custody.
E-mail Margaret Downing at firstname.lastname@example.org.