For homeless people incapacitated by mental illness in Hawaii, years go by and ― for many ― nothing changes. They’re trapped. And their families struggle to get them help, despite a law passed five years ago that was supposed to offer a way out.
Cheryl Sasaki knows firsthand how hard it is to see a loved one on the streets ― and be able to do nothing about it. Her younger sister, Jeanette Serikaku, was homeless for decades. For 35 years, she was lost in a disease that manipulates how she thinks, feels and acts. “I’d see her at the K-Mart. By 7-11 on Dillingham,” said Sasaki. “I’d always stop by to see how she’s doing. And it was never an eye contact. She’d always look away from me.” As time passed, her condition manifested. Doctors diagnosed Serikaku with bipolar disorder shortly after graduating from Kalani High School. Sasaki said the whole family went to see the state psychiatrist for help. That was in the 1970s. And he had a discouraging message: “He couldn’t do anything because she was not hurting herself and she’s not hurting anybody,” Sasaki said.
Mental health advocates say despite changes in the law since then, that same explanation has kept Serikaku ― and others like her ― trapped on the streets. It used to be the only way a person could be forced to take psychiatric medication in Hawaii is if they committed a crime or had a legal guardian. But in 2014, the state Legislature passed a law called Assisted Community Treatment. It allows the courts to order a person to take medication if they’re proven to be an imminent danger to themselves or others. The problem: That threshold is so high the majority of Hawaii’s homeless suffering from mental illness don’t reach it, despite advocates and family members petitioning the court in a number of cases.
“As I work with many of these people, you don’t think that they have any family involved. Or any family who have tried to help. But it’s actually quite the opposite,” said Dr. Chad Koyanagi, who heads up the Institute for Human Services’ psychiatric street medicine team.
It was Koyanagi who diagnosed Serikaku with schizophrenia, a chronic and severe mental disorder that can include hallucinations, delusions and extremely disordered thinking.The doctor started trying to convince Serikaku to accept treatment when he first encountered her ― as a student in medical school. Perseverance of Koyanagi and her sister eventually found there happy ending.
Not long ago, Sasaki had lost all hope that days like this would ever come. To be sure, there are still times when not everything her sister says makes sense. It’s to be expected in this stage of her recovery. Still, Sasaki is proud to say her sister has improved “1000%” compared to a year ago.
“A thousand percent meaning she has medication. She has housing,” said Sasaki.
“Mentally-wise I think she’s better. She smiles. She says thank you. She’s starting to take care of herself too. It’s good to see her back in society.”
It took 35 years, but Serikaku is finally free ― no longer a hostage of her paranoia but a survivor who managed to escape the filth of the street. She’ll tell you how it happened: “Help is inside that needle,” she said.
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