One Summit County family tries to navigate the county’s mental health system
July 10, 2015
These days, Ed and Lynne Rutan don’t wonder where their son sleeps at night. They don’t wonder if he eats enough or if he showers regularly. And they don’t dread every phone call thinking the voice on the other end will say, "We are sorry. Your son is dead."
The Rutans know where their son is now. They know he takes his medication and goes to his appointments at Valley Behavioral Health. He is on the road to recovery and they are proud of him.
"I admire him more than I can say because he has really come a long way," Lynne Rutan said. "He’s ill. It’s not a shameful thing and he needs helps and he wants help. We really see he could be a contributing member of society if he gets the opportunity. But mental illness is like any chronic disease. There are different phases to it and what he needs today, he may not need in the future."
Their 32-year-old son, who did not participate in the article, has struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues since he was 13. He was in and out of jail and hospitals, but was always released because he was deemed not to be dangerous.
Ed and Lynne originally attributed his problems to substance abuse. He had a tendency to drink vodka and was prone to taking over-the-counter energy supplements. But in his early 20s, they began to suspect another underlying problem when he talked about delusions or paranoid thoughts.
"In all this time and all these years of back and forth, it just shows it’s such a squishy thing to deal with," Lynne Rutan said of navigating the county’s mental health and substance abuse system.
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‘There are others’
Similar troubles affect countless families seeking mental health services throughout Summit County, says Summit County Health director Rich Bullough.
"We are a large enough county that if we have one family experiencing something, there are going to be others," he said.
However, officials are unsure exactly how many families there are and what services they are lacking.
Summit County contracts with Valley Behavioral Services to provide outpatient services, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, but inpatient and detoxification treatment aren’t offered.
In May, several officials got together to explore the county’s gaps in mental health services. Since then, a work group, that includes representatives of several community agencies, has been formed.
"It’s time for us to do a community assessment," Bullough said. "It’s the real day-to-day experiences where ‘rubber hits the road’ that tell you what is going on. That’s what we are trying to get at and you can’t get at that unless we get families engaged. We can sit and talk to the clinicians and sheriff’s department, but it’s the families that we don’t talk with."
‘There is no rock bottom’
When the Rutans moved from New Jersey to Dallas, their youngest son began exhibiting discipline problems. Strong believers of "tough love," Ed and Lynne decided to place him in a strict, 14-month outdoor treatment program.
When he returned home, the Rutans moved enrolled their son in a private school. He was able to graduate and he enrolled in Connecticut College.
The Rutans moved to Utah in 2002, where he received his first alcohol-related charge. He graduated from the University of Utah with a liberal arts degree and entered the financial sector. But after he left that job, he began a downward spiral.
"We were still thinking it’s substance abuse at this point and we went to substance abuse programs and tried to do what they recommended, all the time hoping he’d hit bottom. But he didn’t," Ed Rutan said.
When he misbehaved at two family weddings, Lynne and Ed kicked him out. It started a period of roughly four years when the Rutans had limited, if any, contact with their son.
"We didn’t see him and we knew he was in Park City," Lynne Rutan said. "But we didn’t know what he was doing. To be honest, I’m not sure he knew what he was doing."
Last summer, the Rutans met with their son in Park City for lunch. He was thin and barely filled out his 6-foot-3 frame. He had long, orange hair past his shoulders, a black beard and "wild blue eyes," Lynne Rutan said. He smelled like he was living in a tent, which he was, she said.
The Rutans didn’t have much contact with their son again after the lunch until one day when Ed Rutan was on his way home from North Carolina.
He got a call from his son saying he had been sick so he consumed a whole bottle of vodka "to get better" and "may have been arrested in someone’s yard."
‘Starting the conversation’
In Summit County Prosecutor Matt Bates’ experience, most of the people who filter through the justice system suffer from mental health issues.
"That drives their criminal behavior," Bates said. "We have been starting to focus on how to provide better services to people while they are facing criminal charges."
Bates said establishing pre-trial assessment services, similar to those in Salt Lake County, is crucial in the steps toward providing an umbrella of services.
"We are moving, but we are moving carefully and slowly. We realize we are talking about public funds and people’s lives so we don’t want to jump into this," Bates said. We are going to find a good use for the public’s money tailored specifically to the need of Summit County."
Oftentimes it seems like behavior and substance abuse are tucked in among other issues, Bullough said.
Bullough says the county’s lack of mental health funding isn’t because they don’t care.
"We just don’t have the information to identify what the gaps and needs are," he said.
The county’s work group toured Salt Lake County’s facilities two weeks ago and had a conference call with Mesa County, Colorado on Friday to gauge "what other communities are doing," Bullough said.
He said there are still plans to hold community forums in the fall to hear what other families are going through.
"We know the Rutans aren’t the only ones," he said.
‘We watch over him’
The phone call Ed Rutan received the night he was in North Carolina instigated his son’s first real opportunity at diagnosis. He was involuntarily admitted the University of Utah Medical Center’s psychiatric wards twice.
But a diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder came in September 2014 after he had been bounced from program to program for more than 15 years.
He was prescribed medication, started regularly attending Valley Behavioral Health appointments and, in January, qualified for Medicaid.
While things seem to be falling into place, the Rutans are still trying to navigate the murky waters of the mental health system.
"There’s a real, what I would call, a silo problem in that you have all these separate silos of government services and they don’t interact," Ed Rutan said.
"We know what we see as holes for us, but the holes can be different for other families," he said.
Lynne Rutan wanted to emphasize they are not unhappy with the services they have received in Summit County. But there has to be more services and better coordination, she said.
According to Bullough, the conversations will continue as officials attempt to engage the community and those struggling with the system. Several community forums are tentatively scheduled sometime this fall. Anyone interested in participating can contact Health Director Rich Bullough call 435-333-1582 . To contact the Rutans, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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