Mother Recalls When Son was Diagnosed with Schizophrenia

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MCALLEN – People facing a mental illness can be overwhelming for them and their families. They may not even know they have an illness. A McAllen mother recalled the day when she received a phone call that altered her life and her family’s.

More than 21 years ago, educator Stephanie Contreras got a call about her son who was attending a church camp at the time.

“They called and they said he was on drugs. They couldn’t find the drugs, and they were scared of him,” she said.

Contreras’ son, Ralph, who is now 37, wasn’t on drugs and was taken to a local hospital so they could run some tests.

“The doctor said to go out and wait in the lobby. He asked to go to the hospital and two uniformed armed officers came in and called his name and said stand up, put your hands behind your back. And they cuffed him and walked out the door with him crying, asking what he had done wrong. And me asking where they were taking him and that’s how we discovered that he was mentally ill,” she said.

Ralph’s journey living with schizophrenia began at the age of 16.

“He was sent to various state hospitals and given treatment. They couldn’t find any medication that would work longer than a month or month and a half. The medications did not work for him. That was in the early 90s and they didn’t have the atypical that they have now,” Contreras said.

Money became another worry for Contreras concerning her son’s treatment. She could no longer afford to pay for the medication her son needed.

“What hospital were they taking him to? How much would it cost? How many days would he be there? What in the world was I going to do? I did not have enough money to feed us. How was I going to pay a hospital bill,” she said.

For the family, the money is still difficult to come by to keep up with Ralph’s needs.

“So there is tremendous cost, even though Medicaid helps so much. His medications run over $3,000 a month. So it’s something I would not be able to pay on a teacher’s salary, and he certainly would not be able to pay,” Contreras said.

Medicaid has helped the family but last year something changed for them.

“Today, there are so many more services and Ralph is doing really good. (But) because of a Medicaid issue and lack of money on my part, he suffered a severe setback last year. His psychiatric doctor of 10 years closed down his private practice. He was accepting only private pay that means out of your pocket. I could not afford that pay,” she said.

When a new doctor at Tropical Texas Behavioral Health was assigned, a mix up in the medication really turned things around.

“Gave him the medication he wanted, but it cost me a huge amount of money. It cost me $150 a day to $300 a day. I made a bad choice; I let him go to the new doctor by himself… late September of last year. And he went in prepped and ready to tell the doctor why he needed his particular medication. The doctor gave it to him. He was thrilled. I was thrilled but within two weeks he deteriorated,” she recalled.

Ralph had failed to tell the doctor he was on four other medications. The mixture caused him to lose the balance his psychiatric medication created. Contreras said it was a communication error.

“And it was heartbreaking because I didn’t have the money to pay a private doctor,” she said.

However, things are back on track.

“We are almost a year later and we just now back to the old Ralph. And he’s back on target and he’s back doing excellent work and he attributes it to sushi,” she said.

Ralph said he feels like he’s come a long way.

“Taking my medication and a really good support system, not just here at home but out in the community… Like a friend said to me once, and he said just if you start feeling something you don’t want to feel, think of a time when you…felt good you know. And that and taking my medication and I have not had that kind of anxiety or depression since about that year,” he said.

Ralph has a very high IQ. He’s received two associate’s degrees and loves architecture and graphic arts.

“I have always been drawing and stuff, painting, music and some writing here and there,” he shared.

Contreras said while things are better, keeping up with paying for the medication is always a challenge.

“There is still a lot of income that goes to Ralph. Not because he wants it to be that way, he’s brilliant but he can’t find a job even though he has two associate’s degrees and we are still working on him getting a job,” she said.

Finding work, paying for medication and maintaining day to day are just a few of the challenges people with a mental health issue face.


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