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LISTEN: Deborah Geesling with a photo of Seth.
Charlie Leight/Genesis
LISTEN: Deborah Geesling with a photo of Seth.

Saving Seth

Mental illness | An Arizona family’s struggle with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder mirrors a nation’s

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

PHOENIX—By now the infamous mug shot of Jared Loughner—head shaved, eyes crazed, smile crooked and unreadable—is embedded in Americans’ minds. He was once a good-looking, well-toned teenager with blue eyes. Today, he’s better known as a mass murderer who in Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011, shot 19 people, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Six of them, one a 9-year-old girl, died.

Loughner’s inappropriate smile, which so hauntingly captured his manic thoughts at the time, chilled many viewers who watched it flash on screens for days and weeks. More mass shootings have erupted across the nation over the following two years—at a Colorado movie theater, a Connecticut elementary school, and the Washington Navy Yard. They all trace back to untreated mental illnesses, as do 63 percent of mass shootings since 1982, according to a list compiled by Mother Jones, a liberal investigative magazine.

Still, fewer than one out of 100,000 mentally ill individuals become mass murderers. The everyday tragedies are those within individual lives and families: About 7.7 million American adults, or 3.3 percent of the U.S. population, suffer from a serious mental illness, primarily schizophrenia and bipolar disorder with psychosis. Schizophrenia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) may cause people to “hear voices other people don’t hear” and “believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them.” Bipolar disorder causes unusual and severe “shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” A 2010 study by NIMH estimates that 40 percent of adults with schizophrenia and 51 percent of individuals with severe bipolar disorder receive no treatment within any one-year period. How should Christians respond?

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We can start by listening to the stories that mothers of the mentally ill tell. In Phoenix, Deborah Geesling tries to be a good mother to her son Seth Geesling, 21, who stands a hulking 6-foot-1-inch. He speaks soft and low, and his eyes are brown and doe-like, curtained by lashes that could make a teenage girl jealous. He is the third of four brothers—all over 6 feet tall, dwarfing their blond, bespectacled mother. The three others do not have mental illnesses.

Before I met Seth, Deborah told me her son is a perceptive, kind sweetheart, her “pico de gallo.” Although she worried how he would respond to me, when we met he showed himself a gentleman: warm, polite, and considerate. But observe him for some time, and certain things seem a little off. Seth is restless, unable to focus or sit still. At times his speech wanders and slurs. He can be slow in responding to questions, and sometimes he smiles or chuckles at odd times. His official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, which means he shows symptoms for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Seth was 14 when he started showing bipolar symptoms. His reckless behaviors jumped far out of his usual sweet character. He secretly overdosed on Benadryl and awoke vomiting. He would run away from home, once disappearing for three days. “At the time, it just seemed like he was being a rebellious teenager,” said Deborah. She found his behaviors extreme and perplexing, but “we didn’t know what we were really dealing with at all.” The behaviors turned increasingly irrational, violent, manic. He ran away from home so often that the Geeslings had an on-call search team of church pastors. The Geeslings’ fingers were poised to dial 911 at any given moment.

One night, Seth hit his father. By that point, the Geeslings knew Seth shouldn’t be at home. Deborah was hysterical from fear and exhaustion. Too frequently, they were sending his younger brother to the safety of a friend’s house. They had tried everything: a Christian ranch in Montana, juvenile deterrence programs, counseling, discipline—nothing was working. It was a bizarre situation that night: A parent begging a cop to arrest a son. But as Deborah watched her son being led away in handcuffs, she felt it might save him: “This goes against the norm of a parent’s heart, but we were very grateful he was in jail. At least we knew he was safe for that time.”

After jail and staying in an interim house, Seth was put on probation—but he stopped taking his medication, started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and rapidly fell into a worse mental state. By then he was 18—a legal adult. Soon after, he had his first psychotic break: He went around his neighborhood ringing his neighbors’ doorbells and singing the same song over and over. His brothers chased him while disturbed neighbors looked on. By the time he ran into a busy street, five police officers were after him. He pushed an officer down and ran out into the middle of the road. Cars honked, tires screeched, people howled. Finally, an officer tasered him. 

—This was part one of Sophia Lee’s investigation. In part two she writes about a young woman dealing with bipolar disorder, a young man whose condition tortures his mother and himself, and what government and churches are doing—and not doing.

The sources for the information in the graphic are the National Institute of Mental Health, National Alliance on Mental Illnesses, National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Treatment Advocacy Center.

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