(St. Louis, Mo.) – In the wake of all the mass shootings across the country in recent years there has been a lot of attention on gun control. But many say the focus for change should really be on what to do about the lack of help for people suffering from mental illness.
In each of the recent high profile attacks – the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater and the attack at Virginia Tech – the suspect was deemed to be suffering from a mental illness. According to a recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a government agency established by Congress in 1992, 1-in-5 Americans or nearly 50 million people suffer from a form of mental illness.
Shirlee Gentles’ son, Marshall, who died on Jan. 11, 2008, was one of them. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition in which people go back and forth between periods of extreme highs and lows.
The weekend before the St. Louis mother was going to have her son committed, his stepfather shot and killed him in self defense. “Marshall was in a psychotic state at the time and lunged at him,” said Gentles. “He had threatened to kill us in the past and John feared for his life, as well as my life and our son James’ life that night.”
In her book, “Are You Feeding Me Poison?” (Tate Publishing, 2012, $13.99) Gentles shares the heartbreaking story of a mother’s fight for her son. Marshall Fink’s struggle with mental illness began sometime between June 2005 and Sept. 22, 2005. Fink’s mother is not sure exactly what the trigger was, but suspects it had something to do with his time in the military.
“After 9-11, with a surging feeling of patriotism, Marshall enlisted in the Navy and did very well there,” said Gentles, who notes that after two years in the service Marshall had worked his way up to an electrician’s mate second class (EM2) and engineman third class. She says he was excited about his second planned deployment to the Gulf in the summer of 2005, but he never got to go.
“Shortly before his scheduled deployment date, Marshall called home and told me a fellow seaman, who was married and had a child, needed the additional income the military paid when one was deployed. He said he was going to let his buddy go instead of him. But I could hear the aggravation in his voice,” said Gentles.
On Sept. 22, 2005, she received a phone call from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego informing her that her son had been admitted and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Because of his mental instability he was going to be discharged.
“I was so blindsided,” said Gentles. “Marshall's dad had just spent two weeks with our son in June and he was fine. He sounded overwhelmed and agitated when we spoke in August 2005, however; and then on Sept. 22, 2005, we received the shocking call that our son was admitted to the Naval Medical Center exhibiting characteristics consistent with bipolar. That call and all events afterwards forever changed our lives.”
Gentles says the military’s original plan was to discharge her son honorably due to his mental illness, but while the paperwork was in process, Marshall went missing. He was located three months later, brought back to base and placed in the brig. When the Navy finally released him to his family, his status had been changed to “Other than Honorable.” The status change meant he would not qualify for treatment at the V.A. Hospital.
Gentles and her husband, John, took Marshall in and did the best they could to care for him. Unfortunately, they were unable to save him.
“I wrote the book as part of my effort to give back and make a difference in Marshall’s name,” said Gentles, who will be donating 30-percent of the profits from book sales to Bring Change 2 Mind, a national anti-stigma campaign aimed at removing misconceptions about mental illness.
Actress Glenn Close founded the program to help people like her sister and nephew who suffer from mental illness. In her review of “Are You Feeding Me Poison?” the actress said, “It is stories like yours which will give people the courage to tell their own stories. We all naturally put on a brave face to the world, but everyone has a story and it’s the telling of stories like yours that will end the stigma and suffering.”
“We were so moved when we first heard from Shirlee Gentles and learned of the terrible sadness that mental illness brought to her family’s history. Her book is an honest, brave and beautiful testament to how a family can be affected by mental illness. We are so honored to partner with Shirlee,” stated Pamela Harrington, Executive Director of Bring Change 2 Mind.
Tate Publishing released “Are You Feeding Me Poison?” in Oct. 2012. Books are available at fine bookstores everywhere or can be purchased online at www.tatepublishing.com, www.Amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.
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