Childhood Mental Illness - Morgan's Story
By Alyson Showalter - This story was originally published here.
Morgan Geyser ( affectionately nicknamed Mogo while in utero) was just 12 years old when her life changed forever due to the consequences of mental illness and the justice system. Before her mental illness took it's toll on her, her mother Angie is quoted as saying "Morgan loved animals and was always gentle and kind. She enjoyed reading, writing, drawing, anime, and playing with her American Girl dolls. She was an excellent student and her teachers always loved having her in class. She used to stay after school to help her English teacher clean up the classroom. She was always a quirky kid who marched to the beat of her own drum. She was intensely creative and had a silly sense of humor. She was a loving and affectionate member of our family."
Morgan is diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia or psychosis, she did not tell her parents she was experiencing symptoms . She was diagnosed in December 2014.Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders are medical illnesses that result in strange or bizarre thinking, perceptions (sight, sound), behaviors, and emotions. Psychosis is a brain-based condition that is made better or worse by environmental factors - like drug use and stress. Children and youth who experience psychosis often say "something is not quite right" or can't tell if something is real or not real. It is an uncommon psychiatric illness in young children and is hard to recognize in its early phases.
The appearance of symptoms of psychosis before age 12 is rare (less than one-sixtieth as common as the adult-onset type), but studying these cases is important for understanding this disorder. For those who might develop psychotic disorders or schizophrenia as adults (adult-onset), it is not uncommon for them to start experiencing early warning signs during puberty or adolescence. The period of time when an adolescent experiences the early warning signs of psychosis is called prodrome. During this time, youth recognize that their experiences (hearing or seeing things that are not there) are strange or concerning. They may not easily admit these problems unless asked. Being aware of the early warning signs and offering support is crucial.
Childhood-onset - Most children with schizophrenia show delays in language and other functions long before their psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking) appear. In the first years of life, about 30% of these children have transient symptoms of pervasive developmental disorder, such as rocking, posturing, and arm flapping. Childhood-onset of psychosis may present with poor motor development, such as unusual crawling, and children may be more anxious and disruptive compared to those with later onset.
Feeling like their brain is not working
Feeling like their mind or eyes are playing tricks on them
Seeing things and hearing voices that are not real
Hearing knocking, tapping, clicking or their named being called
Vivid and bizarre thoughts and ideas
Sudden and bizarre changes in emotions
Peculiar behavior that seem unusual
Increased sensitivity to light, sounds, smells or touch
Concept that people are “out to get them”
Fearfulness or suspicion that isn't warranted
Withdrawal from others
Severe problems in making and keeping friends
Difficulty speaking, writing, focusing or managing simple tasks
Treatments- Early diagnosis and medical treatment are important. It is especially important that children and youth with the problems and symptoms listed above receive a complete evaluation. These children may need individual treatment plans involving other professionals. A combination of medication and individual therapy, family therapy, and specialized programs (wraparound services, early psychosis treatment) is often necessary. Changes in life style (keeping stress low, taking fish oils), additional supports (therapy and school support) and psychiatric medication can be helpful for many of the symptoms and problems identified.
Making the choice about whether or not to use medications can be difficult. Second-generation (atypical) antipsychotic drugs are usually tried first because they may cause fewer side effects than standard drugs. Serious side effects of second-generation antispychotic drugs can include weight gain, diabetes and high cholesterol. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration approves the use of two second-generation drugs in children ages 13-17, Risperidone (Risperdal) and Aripiprazole (Abilify). Source; mental health America
An expert witness revealed that Geyser's father had suffered from a similar mental illness as an adolescent and was hospitalized at least four times when he was 14. Matthew Geyser later went on disability because of his schizophrenia, said Deborah Collins, a forensic psychologist, who said she interviewed him and reviewed his medical records as part of her work for the defense."There is a genetic component in psychiatric disorders," Collins said. "If a parent has a history, there can be a higher rate of incidence among offspring." (Source; JSOnline)
Both Morgan and Anissa were twelve years old at the time of the stabbing, as was the victim. All three were classmates, enrolled in the same middle school and had been at a sleepover at Morgan's home the night before. Morgan and Anissa had discovered Slender Man on the Creepypasta Wiki, a website that hosts creepypasta, or Internet horror stories. Morgan and Anissa at the time believed that Slender Man was real, and that they wanted to become his "proxies", or followers, to prove their loyalty to him, prove his existence and to prevent him from harming their families. Morgan and Anissa believed that the only way they could become Slender Man's proxies was to sacrifice someone.After they carried out the assault, Morgan and Anissa believed they would become servants of Slender Man and be allowed to live in his mansion, which they believed was in Nicolet National Forest. (source;wikipedia)
Morgan and Anissa planned to carry out the attack Saturday morning in a bathroom at a local park. However, they actually carried out the attack in a nearby forest while playing a game of hide-and-seek. The victim was stabbed nineteen times. The girls then fled. Law enforcement conducted a mass search for Morgan and Anissa. Morgan and Anissa were found walking by a Waukesha County Sheriff's Deputy.(source;wikipedia)
Morgan and Anissa have been charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide in adult court. Children's brains don't develop fully until their 20's. Longitudinal neuroimaging studies demonstrate that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s. Current studies demonstrate that brain structures and processes change throughout adolescence and, indeed, across the life course. These findings have been facilitated by imaging technologies such as structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (sMRI and fMRI, respectively). Much of the popular discussion about adolescent brain development has focused on the comparatively late maturation of the frontal lobes, although recent work has broadened to the increasing “connectivity” of the brain.
Throughout childhood and into adolescence, the cortical areas of the brain continue to thicken as neural connections proliferate. In the frontal cortex, gray matter volumes peak at approximately 11 years of age in girls and 12 years of age in boys, reflecting dendritic overproduction . Subsequently, rarely used connections are selectively pruned making the brain more efficient by allowing it to change structurally in response to the demands of the environment. Pruning also results in increased specialization of brain regions; however, the loss of gray matter that accompanies pruning may not be apparent in some parts of the brain until young adulthood. In general, loss of gray matter progresses from the back to the front of the brain with the frontal lobes among the last to show these structural changes.
Neural connections that survive the pruning process become more adept at transmitting information through myelination. Myelin, a sheath of fatty cell material wrapped around neuronal axons, acts as “insulation” for neural connections. This allows nerve impulses to travel throughout the brain more quickly and efficiently and facilitates increased integration of brain activity. Although myelin cannot be measured directly, it is inferred from volumes of cerebral white matter . Evidence suggests that, in the prefrontal cortex, this does not occur until the early 20s or later.
The prefrontal cortex coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and executive functioning. Executive functions are a set of supervisory cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behavior, including planning, response inhibition, working memory, and attention. These skills allow an individual to pause long enough to take stock of a situation, assess his or her options, plan a course of action, and execute it. Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility, all of which could undermine judgment and decision making.
Synaptic overproduction, pruning and myelination—the basic steps of neuromaturation—improve the brain’s ability to transfer information between different regions efficiently. This information integration undergirds the development of skills such as impulse control . Although young children can demonstrate impulse control skills, with age and neuro-maturation (e.g., pruning and myelination), comes the ability to consistently use these skills. (source; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
In August 2014, Morgan was ruled incompetent to stand trial.Morgan had been diagnosed by state psychiatrists with Childhood Onset schizophrenia, and was remanded to the Winnebego Mental Helath Institute. In December 2014, both girls were ruled competent to stand trial.They have been set to be tried as adults because Wisconsin law states, "all murder and attempted-murder charges for children older than 10 start in adult court." A conviction on first-degree charges in adult court could result in a sentence of up to 45 years in state prison, whereas a conviction in juvenile court could lead to three years incarceration, better mental health treatment and then supervision until the age of 18. Bail was set at $500,000 each. Morgan's parents have appealed the decision to remain in adult court several times and lost the appeal.
Morgan is held in the state hospital currently and is allowed contact visits daily. She had no windows in her room and no access to the outdoors at the juvenile detention center, she was only allowed contact visits twice a month and non-contact visits twice a month. Morgan's parents are allowed to visit daily at the hospital. Morgan was sexually assaulted while in custody by her roommate and her roommate was simply moved to another room. Morgan did not receive treatment for her schizophrenia for 19 months. Morgan's family and medical team have seen a steady decline in her mental state since returning to Juvenile Detention.
The impact of being detained instead of rehabilitated will forever make its mark on Morgan and her family.
Families that lose a loved one to the justice system and mental illness can also be traumatized. The loss of a loved one has been said to feel like death in the family. It can cause major depression, PTSD, financial problems, personal attacks by society and much more. Angie Geyser states "It feels like a death. The sense of loss is impossible to describe. I had the highest of hopes for Morgan, and now I just hope to bring her home."
After thoughts: I chose to write this article because I could be Morgan's mother, anyone could be Morgan's mother. The mass incarceration of mentally ill youth in America has ballooned. We are no longer focusing on rehabilitation, our society would rather lock them up and throw away the key. We are charging children as adults now and it has a major impact on our society. With the right treatment and therapy those with serious mental illness CAN be rehabilitated and I will touch on this later in my series on the mass incarceration of our mentally ill youth. I am deeply touched by Morgan's story due to my own struggles with mental illness and my children's struggles with mental illness. It can happen to anyone and until we wake up and begin to treat it as a illness our prisons will continue to have overcrowding and mental illness will progressively get worse. I am blown away by Angie Geysers strength to continue to fight for Morgan and to provide her with the support and unconditional love she needs despite everything and everyone that is against her, Angie is attacked daily as is her family. But then when I put myself in her shoes I know I would do the same for my child. We don't have to support crime but we can choose to change the cycle and give those in need of help the help they deserve. We are our children's biggest advocates, no matter the crime a child deserves the love and guidance of their parents, after all that is our responsibility as a parent so why are we giving up on the most vulnerable people in America?
If you would like to support Morgan and her family please check out: