Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Drug changed man's life

Next-generation medication helped mental illness

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For Troy Owens, it was as if 17 years of fog had lifted overnight.

        He doesn't hear secret messages from the television anymore. He doesn't need to have the pen in his shirt pocket angled just so to protect him from invisible waves.

        For a year and counting, the 37-year-old Mount Washington resident has lived free of the symptoms of his mental illness — the longest period of normalcy that Mr. Owens has had since he was 19 years old.

[photo] Troy Owens now can work on his electronics hobby, thanks to a new medication, Zyprexa.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        He owes much of his improvement to regular doses of Zyprexa, one of a growing number of next-generation medications that are transforming psychiatric care.

        After more than 75 hospitalizations, 90 different combinations of medications, shock treatments, and years of therapy, Zyprexa was the first medication to really work for him.

        “It was as if a switch had been thrown that created sanity,” Mr. Owens said.

        The transformation is nothing short of miraculous, Mr Owens' family and doctors agree. He is one of the rare lucky ones.

        Many people who might also benefit from such new wonder drugs aren't getting them, mental health advocates say.

        In fact, significant numbers of people with mental illness still get no treatment at all.

        “The new medications are the most exciting area in the field of mental health,” said Terry Russell, executive director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Ohio.

        “I have seen it over and over again: Since the new medications have come out, people have been taking their medications, getting support and becoming productive citizens,”

        However, of the estimated 308,000 Ohio residents with mental illness, about 25 percent get no treatment, Mr. Russell said. And the ranks of the untreated are likely to grow, because Gov. Bob Taft has ordered a 3 percent spending cut at the Ohio Department of Mental Health.

        Mr. Russell said many community mental health agencies lack the funds to supply next-generation medications to needy clients.

        “They either depend on free samples from the pharmaceutical companies, which I believe is not the way to go, or they use older medications which are cheaper but less effective,” he said.

        Mr. Owens was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. In layman's terms: he suffers from a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes a rare combination of delusions caused by schizophrenia plus manic-depressive mood swings caused by bipolar disorder.

        It is a severe form of mental illness that tends to strike during early adulthood.

        Mr. Owens gets care from Queen City/Mitchell Mental Health Services, one of several agencies in Greater Cincinnati that focus on care for the uninsured and people covered by government-paid benefits.

        Mr. Owens, who is unemployed and collects disability payments, is covered by Medicaid.

        As a kid, Mr. Owens loved tinkering with electronics. At Western Hills High School, he worked in the audiovisual department and ran lights for school plays. He dreamed of becoming an electrical engineer.

        But shortly after graduation in 1982, mental illness started taking over his life. He would hold down a job for a while, or try to take some classes, then he'd fall apart.

        His mother, Maxine Owens, sought help for her son many times. But none of the treatments seemed to work.

        Many medications caused painful or embarrassing side effects. Others left him “feeling like a zombie,” unable to carry out routine life tasks.

        Unable to remain stable, Mr. Owens wound up in hospital psychiatric wings and state mental facilities three or four times a year, often for weeks at a time.

        In the summer of 2000, Mr. Owens was admitted to a monthlong stay at Summit Behavioral Healthcare in Bond Hill.

        While there, he started getting care from Dr. Tracey Skale, medical director at Queen City/Mitchell. Dr. Skale started him on Zyprexa and continued regular counseling after he was discharged Aug. 11, 2000.

        “When I was at Summit, it was as if I left all my problems on the grounds and walked away,” Mr. Owens said. “Between the medications and the care, everything turned around so fast.”

        The medication isn't cheap; it costs about $500 a month. But staying in a state mental hospital can cost about $350 a day, Mr. Russell said.

        Beyond improving Mr. Owens' quality of life, the medication has lifted a tremendous burden from Mr. Owens' mother, who has struggled for years caring for and worrying about her son.

        “I'm having a life of my own at age 76, and I barely know what to do with it,” Mrs. Owens said.

        Since 1996, when Zyprexa hit the market, more than 7.2 million people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders have been treated with the medication.

        Said Lilly spokeswoman Marni Lemons, “These were people who at one time were tossed aside by society or locked away in mental institutions. And now we're seeing them holding down jobs and leading normal lives.”

        Better pills, by themselves, don't transform lives, said Dr. Skale; clients who were debilitated for years usually need expert help rebuilding their lives, from vocational training to learning to cope with everyday relationship stresses that they never learned to handle while sick.

        These days, Mr. Owens spends much of his time working in an electronics workshop set up in his mother's basement. He rebuilds disc drives, repairs antique televisions, and experiments with Tesla coils (devices that can generate electricity without burning fuel).

        Mr. Owens also volunteers three days a week refurbishing donated computers for the Cincinnati Public Schools.

        He would like to go to work in a “real” job, but for now, he's stuck. If Mr. Owens earns more than $65 a month, he'll lose the Medicaid coverage for his pills.

        He cannot risk taking a job without strong medical benefits.

        Despite such concerns, life is dramatically better for Mr. Owens. To Mrs. Owens, that means other people can find help, too.

        “More people need to know, there are treatments now,” she said.


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