December 14, 2012

Families mostly powerless when mentally ill adult resists help

Legal protections make it difficult to force treatment, but one man's personal tragedy has led to changes.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

During those terrible final days, Joe and Amy Bruce lay awake, side by side, night after night, listening to their son Willy roam around downstairs, ranting to himself.

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Joe Bruce, whose wife was killed by their son, helped to enact a state law that allows family members and law enforcement to initiate outpatient treatment for those who are mentally ill.

Jim Evans/Staff photographer

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Members of the Bruce family posed for this photo in their Caratunk home several years before Willy Bruce killed his mother in a psychotic rage in 2006. Amy and Joe Bruce are seated in front, with Willy Bruce and Amy's mother, Gladys, behind.

Courtesy photo

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Amy Bruce's letter to her son Will

Their minds raced, searching for an unknown solution, unable to imagine how they might end the turmoil that had engulfed their home in rural Caratunk, near Greenville.

For several years, the Bruces had struggled to get good, consistent mental health care for Willy, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia but fought treatment.

Their torment peaked in the weeks before the 2006 tragedy that would rend the Bruce family forever and propel Joe Bruce to become a nationally recognized advocate for families of the mentally ill. Willy wasn't shot and killed by police like others profiled in this Press Herald series, but the Bruces' experience mirrors the challenges faced by many families with mentally ill loved ones.

Willy, then 24, had never been so sick, so disconnected from reality. But the Bruces had run out of options, frustrated by a mental health care system and privacy laws that allowed their adult son to exclude them from any involvement in or knowledge of his treatment.

Amy Bruce, who was the town treasurer, captured the couple's mounting agony and regret in a letter she wrote to her son, urging him to resume treatment. Joe Bruce found the letter, tucked in his wife's wallet, several weeks after Willy killed her.

"Please, please, please try to realize that your father and I are doing the best we can," she scrawled on yellow lined paper. "We truly don't know what else to do. You have got to help us, Will. I know you have reason to doubt our ability to protect you, but please give this a chance."

In March 2006, assisted by a patient advocate, Willy Bruce had secured his own release from the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta without anti-psychotic medications or a treatment plan. A few weeks later, as he always did, Willy showed up at his parents' house and began the hellish descent toward a bloody catastrophe that drew national news coverage.

Awake for days at a time, Willy regularly ventured outside to smoke, lighting up in the woodshed and snubbing out cigarettes in the sawdust. Often, he walked circles in the driveway, shouting nonsense at a silent audience of trees. He smashed a bathroom mirror, hid kitchen knives in his bedroom, wore his clothes inside out on purpose, slicked back his hair with olive oil - inexplicable acts that sprang from the mania that consumed him.

"I spent hours trying to reason with him," Joe Bruce, 60, recalled recently. "He believed that his mother and I were conspiring to have him committed. Well, yes, we were, because we thought he needed help. But by that time, he didn't want us involved in his treatment at all. We were just kind of waiting."

On June 20, 2006, their wait ended. Willy Bruce killed his mother with a hatchet, believing that she was affiliated with al-Qaida. Joe Bruce, who then worked for the Maine Department of Transportation, came home to find Amy's battered body in the bathtub.

The next day, police arrested Willy Bruce without incident outside his grandparents' house in South Portland. In March 2007, he was found not criminally responsible by reason of major mental illness. He was committed to Riverview for an indefinite period and remains there today.

In the wake of a tragedy that would have destroyed most people, Joe Bruce became an outspoken national advocate for families of the mentally ill. He helped to legalize court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment in Maine as an alternative to hospitalization and received a commendation from the national Treatment Advocacy Center in 2009 for his efforts.

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