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Minnesota man speaks out against his time in a psych unit

March 10, 2018

In this Nov. 28, 2018 photo, Richard Kelly appears during an interview at his home in St. Cloud, Minn. Kelly spent three days in a hospital in St. Cloud against his will. The hospital visit troubled Kelly and widened rifts in his family. He felt the experience robbed him of his liberty and cast doubt on his sanity. (Dave Schwarz/St. Cloud Times via AP)

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Richard Kelly gets agitated when he talks about the three days last March when he was held against his will at St. Cloud Hospital.

In his human services career, Kelly has helped commit mentally ill people for involuntary treatment. Last year the tables turned: Family members and officials considered him for commitment through a 72-hour hold and courthouse hearing.

The hospital visit troubled Kelly and widened rifts in his family. He felt the experience robbed him of his liberty and cast doubt on his sanity. And he’s sought vindication since.

“I was an inmate,” Kelly told The St. Cloud Times . “I advocated for myself or I would have been railroaded.”

It takes more than a diagnosed mental illness for a Minnesota county to treat someone against their will. A person also has to pose a threat to themselves or to others. Even so, commitment is a labyrinthine legal process complicated by emotions and family dynamics.

A Stearns County judge in May dismissed the petition to commit Kelly. And in the summer the county renewed Kelly’s license to operate an adult foster home.

Kelly, a St. Cloud native, is the former president of the South Side University Neighborhood Association, host of dinner parties and a bachelor.

He shared medical records and police records with the St. Cloud Times and candidly retold his story in multiple interviews.

According to those records, Kelly, 51, has been described by medical workers as manic; Kelly said he’s always been a fast talker.

“He can’t walk down a flight of stairs without dancing down it. He’s always had a million things going on,” said Sue Arnold, Kelly’s friend of nearly 30 years. “I’ve never known him not to talk fast.”

He does talk quickly, veers off into tangents and shifts his tone quickly from laughter to anger, sincerity to excitement.

Kelly grew up on a farm outside of town in an Irish family, he said. He runs an adult foster care home out of his Victorian house near St. Cloud State University.

Kelly speaks Arabic and travels regularly to Egypt and other parts of the globe. A staff person helps care for his foster clients when he’s away, Kelly said.

“Rich was always one of those worldly travelers,” Arnold said.

One of those trips precipitated his 72-hour psychiatric hold. As Kelly tells it, he missed a flight connection at an airport in Egypt last winter and tried to talk his way onto the plane before it took off. It didn’t work.

Short on contingency funds, Kelly spent a few days in the airport and sent a series of text messages to St. Cloud acquaintances who later shared them with commitment officials.

Kelly wrote texts to neighbors and others seeking money he believed the neighborhood group owed him.

His messages said he had stared down Egyptian security officers and threatened to cut off one’s genitals, according to documents in the pre-petition screening report which goes to the county attorney during the pre-commitment process.

Kelly later said he thought that macho posturing might get him through airport security to his return flight.

When he got home to St. Cloud, two of Kelly’s sisters and his niece talked him into going to the hospital for a blood test, he said. They worried he was on cocaine, he said. He wasn’t. They also worried he was in the midst of a psychiatric episode.

Once at the hospital, the staff decided to hold him.

The 72-hour hold is an assessment period, not a commitment, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“You don’t want to deprive someone of their liberties unnecessarily,” Abderholden said. “It is a very sensitive subject. It is an issue that we all take seriously.”

In Kelly’s opinion, he’s not mentally ill, and he bristles at the suggestion he is.

In the hospital, staff tested Kelly for drug use, syphilis and sand fleas. They were “looking for the crazy,” he said.

Mental illnesses are common, and many people function with them. One in five adults develops a mental illness in their lifetime, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota handbook on “Understanding the Minnesota Civil Commitment Process.”

A few thousand people are considered for civil commitment in Minnesota each year; a fraction of those are actually committed.

Between 4,000 and 4,500 commitment filings were logged each year from 2012 to 2016, according to a Minnesota Judicial Branch report.

One person’s experience doesn’t represent the entire system, Abderholden cautioned.

“We want people to take sudden changes in behavior seriously,” she said.

State law doesn’t list what illnesses qualify someone for commitment, said Stearns County Mental Health Unit Supervisor Candace Harren. It’s often psychosis and occasionally involves use of medication or drugs that alter the mental state.

“To get to a hospital level of care, the person isn’t functioning well,” Harren said.

About three-quarters of the people assessed on 72-hour-holds in Stearns County are subsequently committed, according to 2013 to 2016 figures from Harren.

Kelly was not one of them.

“This is a small sliver of the population,” said Julie Ellis, community supports division director for Stearns County. “There are people with mental illnesses who are functioning.”

When is it necessary to force treatment?

“A doctor might say, when it begins to affect their personal and professional life,” Ellis said.

Kelly spent March 7 jet-lagged after his return trip from Egypt. That day, he’d been with social workers and a long-time client who was dying, he said.

His sisters and niece came over and raised concerns about his behavior — unusual requests to borrow money, unusual text messages from the airport in Egypt they’d learned of second-hand, Kelly said. He agreed to go with them for a blood and urine test at the hospital, he said.

A security guard wouldn’t let him leave the hospital, and Kelly was put in a room in the psychiatric unit, he said. A staff person woke him in the middle of the night for a blood draw and laid a folded blanked on him that felt like a brick, he said.

“It was an interesting, surreal kind of night,” Kelly said.

Kelly spoke in Arabic to the doctors during some of the assessment. He said he was trying to demonstrate he had the mental faculty to speak in a different language. His sisters gave part of the family history.

While in the hospital on the 72-hour hold, Dr. Jon Bower recommended Kelly for inpatient treatment and diagnosed him with bipolar disorder in a manic state.

But a Benton County screening team came to a different conclusion. Because Kelly works in adult foster care in Stearns County, a team from Benton County assessed him to provide an unbiased opinion, he said. Kelly’s file includes notes from family, friends and acquaintances expressing concerns about Kelly’s behavior or, alternately, vouching for him.

“Really, at that time, we’re looking for dangerousness,” Harren said. “If someone is committed, it really could restrict their rights.”

That panel of social workers didn’t deem Kelly a threat to himself or others.

“Members of the screening team are concerned about the recent behaviors of Mr. Kelly but do not believe they rise to the level of civil commitment,” according to the Benton County Human Services Pre-Petition Screening Program Report. “It is believed that Mr. Kelly has not made/acted on any threats to harm himself or others.”

If the screeners did recommend Kelly be committed, he could have been held for up to six months.

People who are committed may be transferred to a community behavioral health hospital, the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center or a local hospital.

Families are often involved in civil commitments and that can lead to strained relationships.

“It is very difficult. There are a lot of tears shed on both sides,” said Abderholden of NAMI Minnesota. It’s normal for a patient to become very angry at family members who push for commitment, she said.

“It’s really hard on families,” Ellis, from Stearns County Human Services, said. Even though the process is hard, the alternative would be harder, she said.

Kelly said he was already estranged from his sisters before the hold. After the screening team cleared him to leave the hospital, two of his sisters pressed for a follow-up hearing for a judge to rule on whether he should be committed.

Those sisters declined to be quoted or named in the St. Cloud Times. They said they acted out of concern for their brother.

Kelly has changed in the last year, and it’s for the better, said Kelly’s friend Sue Arnold. She collected Kelly from the hospital after his 72-hour hold.

Arnold’s seen Kelly lose weight in the past five years. More recently, he’s stepped back from unhealthy friendships and partying.

“You have a right to live your life without your family messing with you all the time,” Arnold said.

She and Kelly became friends in the late 1980s at St. Cloud State University where he studied history. He’s helped her through a divorce and had her over for big dinner parties.

“He has a super kind heart,” Arnold said. “Anytime I saw him he always had a hug, had a smile.”

On top of his family troubles, Kelly also parted ways last year with acquaintances and fellow members of the neighborhood group he helped found.

He had complaints about the group’s management before his infamous trip to Egypt and ensuing hospital stay. He claims he was short on cash during those travels because the group owed him a reimbursement.

But the St. Cloud Neighborhood Coalition claimed the opposite and took Kelly to court late last year, alleging he took about $7,000 from the treasury.

A judge ruled in Kelly’s favor on Dec. 27. It was the second time the court sided with Kelly last year.

Kelly’s commitment hearing took place May 2. Two friends joined him for moral support. He and his family hoped for different outcomes.

Psychologist Phil Godding testified he believed Kelly was in a manic state of bipolar disorder, according to a transcript of the hearing.

“I’ve considered Mr. Kelly to be profoundly ill,” Godding said in court. “But through all the texts, through all the emails, throughout my conversation, throughout discussing the history with his friend, there is no dangerousness.”

The judge told Kelly to get mental health treatment, and Kelly agreed.

Kelly left the courtroom with one burden gone, but his family relationships remained strained. He’s unhappy with county officials and how they managed his case. He’s complained to the hospital and to the state.

“I’m not pursuing it (further). I’ve got to get on with my life,” Kelly said. “My life is really good now. I’ve taken a hit. My plans are back on track.”

He’s renewed his efforts in a new neighborhood project called Artists Row. He continues to travel to Egypt and China as well.

“I’ve been totally vindicated, legally,” Kelly said.

But it’s still been a tough year.

“I shouldn’t have had to be the only one to look after me,” he said.


Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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