Parents Hope Son's Tragic Death Can Spark Awareness of Mental Illness

3:48 PM, Feb 15, 2013   |    comments
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Jonathan Ramos

HAMBURG, NY - A Western New York Family is speaking out about the tragic death of their loved one, in order to help others.

By doing some, they hope to erase the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

Our story was prompted by the impassioned words of Cheryl Ramos (whose letter about her son can be read in its entirety below).

By the time he was 18, Jonathan Ramos had earned himself an academic scholarship to the University at Buffalo, and made the football team as a walk on. A determined young man, to whom most things came easy

But shortly into his first semester, he started exhibiting what was for him unusual behavior.

"We thought at first it had to do with a young person making adjustments to a new situation in life...but things got worse and worse and worse," recalled Jonathan's father Fred.

"He started actually having delusions, his behavior was becoming more bizarre...he insisted he had saved his dad and brother from a tiger attack..and there were uncontrolled outbursts," Cheryl told WGRZ-TV.

Jonathan continued to sink faster into the abyss of the disease that he was eventually diagnosed with - Schizophrenia.

"This sickness hit him, and it was as if he went from the top of the mountain straight down," Fred said.

As his behavior problems became more severe, the voices in his head would compel him to commit petty crimes.

As a diagnosed schizophrenic, Jonathan was under court order to keep his counseling and treatment appointments...but he couldn't remember to do that, which eventually would lead to jail.

"Jonathan got caught between the cracks...he would walk out of that (court) room and forget ... and then the first thing they'd say is, 'you didn't go to your appointments... you're done...you get arrested'," Fred said.

There was also hospital confinements, as the Ramos' tried desperately to get Jonathan the proper help, most often encountering road blocks.

"I was setting in place new plans for who I would call, what letter I would write, wondering who would listen," Cheryl said.

That was until a Friday morning last August when Jonathan went to a parking garage in downtown Buffalo, and leaped to his death from the fourth floor. He was 22.

Jonathan Ramos fell victim to the ravages of an illness.

However, unlike Cancer or MS, serious maladies for which you can readily seek and expect treatment, the same cannot be said for Schizophrenia.

"There is definitely a need in the community for more resources," said Brenda Banach, Vice President of Mental Health Operations for Horizon Health Services, which ranks as the largest behavioral health provider in Western New York.

"In this area there aren't enough psychiatry services, particularly for adolescents and young adults. Child psychiatrists are very scarce in this region and there are long waits, sometimes up to six months to see a psychiatrist in this community, Banach told Two On Your Side.

Banach said the best way to increase mental health resources is to raise awareness of mental illnesses, which is precisely what the Ramos family, along with many of their friends, have set out to do.

The Colorful Minds Foundation has been established in Jonathan's honor, and among other goals, has begun raising money for the Jonathan Ramos Scholarship at UB, to be awarded annually to a student pursuing a degree in mental health counseling.

"There's a certain taboo regarding the discussion of mental illnesses, and that needs to stop," said Colleen Krystyniak, a family friend and mental health professional.

"The more people that are as brave as the Ramos family is, who come forward and share their story, the more we're going to start to change the system, she said.

Because, as the Ramos' will tell you, if it can happen to their child, it could happen to anyone's.

Click on the video player above to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Scott May. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2

Below is the story of Jonathan Ramos, as written by his mother Cheryl, in her article entitled "Ending Mental Health Stigmatism Now."

I am the mother of Jonathan Ramos, the young man who jumped off the parking ramp on West Eagle Street on Aug 3rd, 2012. I am sharing Jon's story, with the hope that it might help others who would otherwise feel alone. It is my further hope that by sharing some of Jon's private experience, that by voicing our family's pain and sharing our concerns, awareness will be raised, stigma erased, and change brought about for all persons striving for good mental health.
Jonathan was feisty and spirited as a little boy, loving, kind, and funny. He was most at home when surrounded by the love of his family. As he grew, his innate creativity, intelligence, and inborn raw talent for sports were difficult to miss. With everything he did, he gave all that he had. He graduated from Lackawanna HS in 2008 and went to UB on a full academic scholarship, enrolled in an Engineering program. He was a walk on to the UB football team the year they won the MAC championship. Jon remained extremely passionate about his family, God and football. His entire family knew this brilliant kid was meant for greatness. He was so smart, funny, down to earth, handsome, and talented; the world was at his feet.
And then, it was like a dark, and mysterious haze began to descend upon Jon. At first, Jon felt anxious. He could not focus anymore. It was his first year at UB, and so much was at stake. He wanted to succeed. He felt the symptoms of depression settling in too, and they came intensely, swiftly. He lost his scholarship and was placed on academic suspension. Things spiraled quickly. Jon was now no longer in school and had gotten in trouble with the law. He just didn't seem like he could make the right decision anymore. The whole family, 1 brother and 3 sisters, mom and dad were so concerned. We knew this was not Jon! What was going on?
And then things got even worse. Jon started to be delusional; having thoughts and beliefs that were as real to him as ours were to us. Many of them frightened him, kept him awake for nights and nights on end. This led to his first hospitalization, lasting just 4 days. I recall leaving the day he was discharged, as we were stepping into the full elevator of the 11th floor, Jon spontaneously burst into song, interspersed with laughter. He didn't seem right to me, but I was new to this, what did I know? Maybe the pill they gave him would kick in?
My answer, our family's answer, was a resounding No. Within the next 3 months, we would call Crisis Services multiple times, and on two occasions, Jon was again admitted for care. Again and again he was discharged with no change in his mental state. He remained delusional, believing his dreams were reality. We, as a family were crushed. Crushed and losing faith in what were to be Jon's care providers. I know we will never forget the day my eldest daughter (after trying to describe the heart wrenching details of Jon's thoughts and behaviors) was told she was "exaggerating." To me, there is no excuse for this. Hopeless and alone, we knew Jon needed more help. We also knew he was never going to ask for it. He was fine in his mind.
Although there were several times after this demoralizing experience that warranted calls to Crisis Services, and visits to the ER, our family had made a decision. Jon wasn't being helped in the hospital, so we would take care of him ourselves. We came up with a plan to take turns in order to protect him and keep him safe. We looked toward a future that would likely involve making financial provisions to care for Jon for the rest of his life, even though at this point, no one had even given Jon a diagnosis. I wish I could tell you that this plan worked.
Unfortunately, one random day, a knock on the door would lead to Jon's arrest. An arrest that, in spite of failing all forensic tests (demonstrating Jon lacked mental capacity), would lead to a 6 month jail term for Jon. Apparently, Jon had been seen on video breaking into his old high school, aimlessly walking around, mission-less, without intent to do anything, and then leaving. I remain saddened about this to this day; the injustice of it. How could Jon be sentenced to a 6 month jail term for failing to comply with court requests? How could he choose to be compliant when he was so delusional, failing all tests ever given? Why not be sentenced to treatment where they could help him? If he failed their forensic testing, surely this should now give them some key information necessary to help him? But no.
We were all sentenced that day; sentenced to further heartbreak. While serving his time in the Erie County jail, Jon would be sent out by ambulance on at least two occasions for psychiatric episodes to ECMC. At discharge, on 3/12/12, after little care and treatment that tended to his psychiatric needs, Jon had full blown symptoms of Schizophrenia. Shortly after his release, it would take Jon's jumping off an upstairs porch and my reports of this to his counselor at Lakeshore to have him readmitted to ECMC. This time, however, they would keep him for 2 months. Healing burns from having removed items from the oven without protection, and continuous delusional speech, it was during this hospitalization that Jon's symptoms could no longer be denied by the doctors. As a family, we rallied again insisting that Jon not be discharged until he was stabilized on a medication that worked. We asked Jon's doctor to enforce Kendra's Law to force Jon to be compliant with his treatment plan and medication after discharge. She questioned if it was really necessary.
When we picked Jon up at ECMC on his day of discharge, after almost 3 years of battling intense and painful emotional symptoms, Jon seemed like Jon again. For the first time, he had insight into the fact that he was ill. Now, when Jon would have strange thoughts, or hear voices, for the most part, he would recognize the likelihood that they were not real. With this insight, Jon was troubled by things that had transpired, and in keeping with his compassionate way, worried about the stress he had caused to his family. We reassured him that all would finally be well. We had prepared a discharge plan that was to surround him with all the support, treatment, and services available.
Jon was assigned a Case Manager, Willie, from New Options who was to help him with housing, financial assistance, and getting to and from his medical appointments. From the very first time I spoke with Willie, my primary request concerned setting Jon up with a Day Treatment program. I knew that Jon was used to being surrounded by the love and care of his family, and especially now, he would need something to do to focus his mind and his energy. I was also hoping Jon would receive some support to cope with his symptoms when they returned, some information and education about his new diagnosis, and to be around others like him so he wouldn't feel isolated and alone. Week after week, phone call after phone call, I would inquire with Willie as to the status of this Day Treatment Program, and week after week, he would put me off. Along with Jon being relocated to a new outpatient treatment site where nearly everyone there spoke Spanish (perhaps an assumption was made because of Jon's last name? However, Jon did not speak Spanish); Jon was placed in a BFNC housing complex. At the time of Jon's placement, their website clearly stated residents would receive 24 hr supervision. I have since noted that as of Jon's death, they have changed their website to reflect reality. For the truth, I was appalled to learn, was that the residents were made to leave the complex everyday from 9-11a.m.; no matter how they were feeling, no matter if they were having a bad day, no matter what the weather was like, no matter if they had anywhere to go or not.
On Aug 1st, I sat with Jon and his counselor Theresa at Lakeshore Behavioral Health telling her I was very upset about the rules that the residents of this housing had to leave everyday for 2 hrs. Apparently, this was the time the workers would do their errands and they didn't want the residents in the house unattended. Jon's counselor told me they were trying to have that changed. She seemed to share and validate my concerns. Also, after bringing up the need for Jon to be in a Day Treatment Program, just once, at this very first meeting, this counselor made a phone call and Jon was to start on Monday August 5th. Monday August 5th. Two days too late. Apparently, that's all it would have taken for Willie to set it up for Jon back in March; a phone call. I regret trusting the "experts." I regret feeling some relief that someone cared.
On Friday August 3rd, 2012 my beautiful son Jonathan, left his housing, as he was forced to do, walked alone downtown, climbed the West Eagle Street ramp, and some time after 9 am, jumped off the ramp to his death. In spite of all of my pain and grief, my anguish and disappoint, I do not blame any one person for my son's death. I do not know where, along the many stops in his journey, our journey, if just one thing had been different, if ultimately it would have changed the outcome. Would Jon be alive if he would have received proper diagnosis, care and treatment early on? Would he be alive if that doctor had believed my daughter when she pled with him to help her brother, and tearfully described her fears of his symptoms? If Jon wasn't sentenced to jail, but treated instead? If Day Treatment had been initiated as it should have been months and months before? Or, most directly, if Jon wasn't made to leave his home, alone, unquestionably troubled and desperate on the morning of his death?
A new diagnosis of Schizophrenia is so frightening. No one tells you what to expect, how to cope, or reassures you that you are not alone. Before the diagnosis comes...well, there really are just no words. To watch your loved one suffer any anguish is unbearable enough, but then to add to it invalidation, improper care, stigma, disenfranchisement, and a lack of support; to me, to my family, to countless others that suffer as Jon did, and with their loved ones; these experiences, they render you invisible, temporarily without voice, feeling as if it is your fault. This isolation, this blame, this neglect, it is a penetrating wound to the essence of your humanity. I write to end these injustices, and bring about change.
My children have started a foundation, The Colorful Minds Foundation Incorporated whose mission is to end the stigma associated with mental illness, raise awareness throughout the community and to support those with mental illness in New York state as well as their families. They are hosting their first benefit Sat. Feb 9th which would have been Jon's 23rd Birthday. We have received an outpouring of support and look forward to helping others to know they are not alone. My daughter Jeneen, the Director, has met with the Director of gifts at UB to discuss setting up a scholarship in Jon's name to be given to a graduate student pursuing a Mental Health Counseling degree.  Thank You. Cheryl Ramos


WGRZ-TV, wgrz.com

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