I-TEAM: As mental health becomes a concern in GA, what about students that are struggling?

Published: Nov. 7, 2019 at 4:52 PM EST
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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2019

News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC at 7

AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- Mental illness has become such a concern in Georgia, the university system now has a mental health task force. It's not even a month old yet.

Right now, the group is working on everything from prevention to how to treat mental health emergencies on college campuses. But what about high schools?

A recent school threat could show younger students are also at risk.

It's a dangerous cycle. Someone with a mental illness is in crisis, they act out, get arrested, and they’re released after a short hospital stay. The cycle repeats itself.

Our I-Team has looked at that trend with adults in our community. But what about kids?

Experts estimate 1 in 5 teenagers has a mental disorder severe enough to impact their daily lives. Many of them have to take medication to remain calm.

People like Earl Torkkola. His mother, Tina, says he is calm whenever he takes his medicine.

But Tina says Earl wasn't taking his medicine last month when the Harlem High 11th grader threatened to shoot "his teacher in the head with his AK-47." According to the incident report, he was "angry" because "a teacher's assistant threw his lunch away."

Does that make him dangerous?

"Earl is 99.9 percent talk, and there's a one percent chance that he can hurt somebody, but I don't think he would use a weapon,” Tina said.

But Earl has pulled a gun on Tina before.

"And I told him he better kill me because if he didn't, I was going to beat the [expletive] out of him,” Tina said. “And I wasn't playing."

Tough love from a mom who admits taking care of her mentally ill son is only getting tougher.

“It’s a 24-hour job,” Tina said.

But what’s the hardest part?

"Seeing your kid need help, and you can't do nothing,” Tina said.

Tina says she and Earl’s father, Dwight, have tried everything.

"They want to put him in these short-term facilities,” Dwight said. “I mean, he's been in a long-term facility one time, and when he came out of there, he done good for about a year, two years."

But that was back when there were more options. Last July, Augusta University Medical Center closed its long-term inpatient mental healthcare program known as 3 South.

University Hospital and Trinity got rid of their long term inpatient programs, too.

It's a trend we're seeing all over the country -- not just in Augusta. And not just with facilities, but with doctors who could help.

The National Council for Behavioral Health warns by 2025, there won't be enough psychiatrists to go around for a fourth of the population in our country.

In the meantime, a hospital stay has become a band aid and not a very good one. Once a patient is stable and has promised to take medication, they're released. But that doesn't mean they're better.

"Well, Earl's been in and out of the hospital so much, he knows, ‘All I gotta do is be good for 24 hours, I'm good. I can get out.’ And he does that,” Tina said. “And we will tell them before he's even transferred to the facility. Look, he will manipulate you. He knows how to work the system."

They said, ‘Oh we got people that can catch that right off the bat,’ and yet, the day after he got there, he said, 'Y'all coming to get me Wednesday,” Dwight said.

The same kid who "immediately admitted that he made the statement out of anger that he would shoot his teacher" but "did not actually mean it." He also admitted he "didn't have access to firearms like he said he did.” Deputies checked their home just to be sure. "Negative results,” they said. There wasn't a lot to search, though.

Their home in Thomson burned down in March.

“We lost everything,” Tina said.

So when Earl started going to Harlem High School this year, he was already struggling.

Without much help, Earl and teenagers like him could end up in crisis in your child’s classroom.

Earl is facing felony charges. He’s now out on bond, and Tina says they are meeting with the school to figure out if he’ll be able to go back to class.

Copyright 2019 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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