May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In our work to safely reunite people across borders, we often help vulnerable individuals return to the U.S. from overseas when they are experiencing mental health issues. Navigating life with a mental health condition is difficult. Our cross-border services can help, as they did in Matthew’s case.
A Bright Young Man Suffers From Mental Illness
Matthew, an intelligent, hardworking, and successful young man, got married after college and started a painting business. At 26 years old, Matthew started experiencing delusions and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although he functioned well for several years by taking medication and seeing a doctor, one day, Matthew’s mental health issues worsened to the point where he felt compelled to seek asylum in a foreign country.
The Cross-Border Challenge: Michael Vanishes Without a Trace
Nothing would prepare Matthew’s mother, Raina, and his wife, Sarah, for the day that Matthew went missing. They knew that Matthew had traveled to Washington D.C., but they couldn’t find any evidence of where he went afterwards. They were able to locate Matthew’s abandoned hotel room and truck in the hotel garage, both of which still had his belongings in them. After scanning credit card purchases and having conversations with their friends, the police, and others in D.C., Raina and Sarah deduced that Matthew had flown to Oslo, Norway.
Panic and Uncertainty Across Borders
Raina worked tirelessly to find Matthew and make sure he was okay. The Embassy checked on Matthew, who discovered that the Salvation Army was caring for him but could not convince him to voluntarily receive mental health treatment. Raina was faced with an impossible decision: should she travel alone to Norway to try to persuade Matthew to come home, or should she stay in the U.S. and keep checking on him? Afraid that seeing her might further escalate Michael’s already fragile state, she chose to remain in the U.S. and monitor the situation from there. Raina was in frequent contact with the U.S. Consulate and the Salvation Army, who were her allies in keeping tabs on Matthew.
Raina’s voice broke when she described her helplessness and panic after she viewed Matthew’s YouTube videos that he posted while in Norway. “Sometimes they were ok, or just nonsensical, but other times he just seemed to be getting worse and worse.”
Eventually, Matthew had overstayed his visit in Norway. As a U.S. Citizen, the Norwegian government and the U.S. Consulate could set about a chain of events to bring Matthew home through immigration enforcement in Norway.
The U.S. Repatriation Program: Helping Matthew Get Home
International Social Service, a partner of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, coordinates between consulates overseas and partners in each U.S. state to help destitute and mentally ill U.S. citizens safely return to the U.S. from overseas. Our casework team facilitates communication between countries, coordinates travel, and links people to services such as medical or mental health care, housing, food, and employment, upon their return. When resettled, repatriates are expected to pay back the costs of their return and the costs of services. Most are reintegrated fairly quickly and are back on their feet in an average of 45 days.
“You just have to keep on trying until you get him home. And thank god for all the good people out there that were willing to help” — Raina
Reintegration: Getting Matthew the Best Possible Care
The consular officer in Oslo and an International Social Service caseworker created a repatriation plan suited to Matthew’s mental health needs. The repatriation team took Raina’s wishes into account; they worked hard to place Matthew in a hospital where he had a treatment history and already knew the doctors and nurses well. Mental health experts in Norway ensured Matthew was stable enough to travel. After arriving in the U.S., Matthew was hospitalized immediately so he could receive psychological care. Raina advocated for Matthew to stay beyond the hospital’s 24-hour period so he could receive thorough treatment that he desperately needed, and eventually, she was able to secure a court order to do so. Raina hopes Matthew will remain stable, but she knows that a relapse is likely. Although the journey home was intensely stressful, Raina is relieved that repatriation services could reunite them and get Matthew the care that he desperately needed.
Easing Uncertainty in Stressful Cross-Border Situations
“Matthew is lucky,” stated the Executive Director of International Social Service, Julie Rosicky. “The U.S. Repatriation Program provides assistance to close to 1,000 people each year. There are many other adults struggling with mental illness that run into trouble in foreign countries, and they don’t have a friend or family member to help them, to advocate on their behalf, or to check on them once they are here. Raina is one extraordinary woman, and her story really touched me. It underscores how important it is for our organization to provide these cross-border services. It’s so daunting to figure out how things work in your own country, let alone a foreign country. But knowing that we can help in these situations and that there are Moms like Raina willing to fight for their children makes our work all the more worthwhile.”
We encourage you to view tools and resources to help raise awareness, end stigma, and become informed about mental health issues and risk factors by visiting National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America.