On a recent afternoon Diana and Lorrin Burdick share pictures and swap stories with three other parents over a lunch of chicken curry sandwiches and fruit salad. They’re hosting an informal but semi-regular support group at their home in suburban Rancho Cordova east of Sacramento.
“Yeah, she loves having family dinners. Sunday is family dinner day now,” says Elizabeth Kaino Hopper as she and husband, Marvin, show a recent picture of their 37-year-old daughter, Christine.
This ordinary lunch with friends is also a vital one: Every parent here has an adult child with a severe mental illness; a son or daughter who’s also struggled with homelessness, substance abuse and arrests. The gatherings give them the chance to share stories, strategies and challenges of having a child with a serious and untreated mental disorder.
“That’s pretty much what he looks like now,” says Diana Burdick as she shows the others a phone shot of her son, Michael, 49, who has lived on the streets for a nearly a decade.
“Aww, see, anybody looking at him would say, he’s not right, he doesn’t feel good,” Elizabeth Hopper says, shaking her head in between lunch bites.
Eight California counties are going first in a planned statewide, controversial experiment to try to fix a seemingly intractable problem every parent around the table is grappling with: How to get treatment and support for loved ones with serious mental health challenges, mostly schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
Some of these people end up cycling in and out of police holds, jails, emergency rooms and homeless shelters and encampments. The nationwide problem is particularly acute in California, which accounts for nearly one third of all people in the United States experiencing homelessness.
Some cities including Los Angeles estimate that 10% to 17% of individuals who are unsheltered have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. But the fact that so many go without a formal diagnosis, experts say the true percentage is likely far higher.