Jayette Lansbury: Tireless Champion for People who are Impacted by Mental Illness and for Compassionate Criminal Justice Reform
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An Angel Finds Her Wings
Jayette Lansbury is a staunch advocate for individuals with mental illness and their caregivers, as well as for reform within the criminal justice system. She intended to become a defense attorney, but was sidelined by illness in her family. Then, she had a son with significant mental health challenges. He thrived in the BOCES program, graduated from Walt Whitman High School, ran in the Special Olympics, joined in community service activities and was paid for his labor. Unfortunately, as a teenager, he became mixed up with the law. On his own, he plead insanity. When Jayette found out, she was told that at 15 her son was old enough to consent and that she had no say. That decision, made by a challenged minor, turned a possible 2-year jail sentence into a stay at a forensic psychiatric center that, 16 years later, has no end in sight.
It was not enough for Jayette to advocate for her own son. She had met too many others who needed help, and encountered too many things that just didn’t seem right. She determined to mix the education she had started with a driving passion to be a part of the solution for all families.
“Is it hard to talk about these things? Sure it is,” says Jayette, “but I don’t care about stigma anymore. Things are hard enough without worrying about what people think. People have to remember that mental illness knows no cultural or socioeconomic boundaries. Any one of these people could be your child, your spouse, your friend. We’re all God’s children and we’ve got to help everyone.”
Making a Difference
“Finding the courage has made a huge difference, not just for the people I get to help, but for me, too. This is my motto: I’m on an awesome wonderful journey, doing awesome wonderful work, meeting awesome wonderful people because of my awesome wonderful son.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 4 adults experience mental illness in a given year. One in 17 live with a serious illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. A 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report found that 61% of NYS prison inmates have mental illness. According to Jayette, 20% of individuals in the younger NYS prison population are on the autism spectrum.
Jayette serves as the Family Liaison for the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center where her son is held. She helps resolve problems between families and staff and advocates for improved visiting conditions, other services for families, and patients' rights. The Center honored her with an Advocate Award in 2008. As a member of the Long Island Region Advocacy Council of the NYS Office of Mental Health, Jayette represents forensics. She was also recently chosen as the Long Island Region Advocacy Committee Facilitator, where she serves families, friends and peers of individuals who suffer with serious mental illnesses. In 2014, she was appointed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to sit on the county Mental Health Subcommittee.
Her interests also include veterans and seniors. For over a decade Jayette served as family support facilitator at Carillon Nursing Home, where mother lived until 2013. “Mom was always there to help someone, and she always let her voice be known. They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so I guess I’m doing kind of the same thing.”
Lansbury’s mother was active in the Melville Road Association and the local neighborhood watch. Well after she became a resident of Carillon, she stayed involved in the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) and advocated for senior citizens, writing letters and more. Over 100 people came to her funeral service. Recently, a Malus Crabapple tree was planted as a monument to her at Heckscher Park, where there will be a dedication ceremony in late April of 2016. “We put it in facing the playground so she can watch the children play.”
“Mom always told me that it’s not about the time we lived on Earth, but what we do with it. We have to help our fellow human beings. She was always there to help someone. She was always there for me and my son. I’m glad I was there for her, too.”
Most of Jayette’s involvement is with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She is President of the Huntington Chapter which is now, thanks to her leadership, an incorporated 501(c)3 organization. She sat on the board of NAMI at the State level for two consecutive terms and is now on a required one-year hiatus. She fully expects to rejoin next Fall.
“If I had known what I do now when my kid was growing up,” muses Jayette, “Don’t get me wrong. I was a member of NAMI and I advocated plenty, but I would have been able to do so much more. Maybe I could have prevented him slipping through the cracks.”
NAMI Huntington offers several programs led by NAMI-trained educators. Family programs cover mental illness, seeking help, serving as a primary advocate, and care for the caregiver. Among skills taught is keeping a logbook of behaviors and treatment to enable the most effective advocacy possible.
Although programs may list diagnosis as a prerequisite, exceptions can be made when there’s a real concern. Says Jayette, “After one week, they’ll know if they need to be here and where they can find help. That’s the important part, because the earlier the treatment, the greater the chances of having a normal or near-normal life. ”
Additional programs focus on the broader community. A Parent and Teachers Alliance works with SEPTA, PTA, School Boards and Superintendents to increase awareness and empathy. There are veterans' programs, emerging efforts that focus on creating job opportunities and more. The organization has also forged strong connections with the Northport Veteran’s Administration and Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center.
Advocacy Training and Crisis De-Escalation
In addition to being trained to lead many of NAMI’s programs, Jayette also chairs criminal justice committees at both the local and state levels of NAMI. She is particularly proud of the advocacy done by NAMI Huntington, receiving a NAMI NYS Justice Award herself in 2008. She is pleased that NAMI national has given her their blessing to go ahead with Criminal Justice Advocacy Training for NAMI Affiliates so they, too, can help people handle criminal justice court and provide support to families. She is currently using her one-year break from the State NAMI Board to get even more deeply involved in penal system change.
At one point, NAMI Huntington met with a police officer from Hempstead who talked about their Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), his training in crisis de-escalation, and how it could help Suffolk County. Jayette, in turn, presented last fall to a class of officers being trained in CIT. She taught them important facts about mental illness and why it’s so important for them to have proper training and compassion. She is now a staunch advocate for this program and hopes to see it expanded throughout New York State. NAMI NYS was a leading advocate in legislation signed by the Governor to require correctional officers in all state facilities to have suicide prevention training, and Jayette is pleased to report that the NYPD is working closely with John Jay College on a CIT program. Other areas have had some beginning, but nothing as thorough as what the Village of Hempstead has done in regards to the level of training in mental health and de-escalation techniques, as well as in training officers to approach situations with compassion and to speak with empathy.
“Crisis intervention training is not only for the person that you may be called to arrest, but also for the family and everyone touched by that life, including the officer. Nobody gets hurt. Some people get needed help. Everybody wins,” says Jayette, “So many terrible consequences can come from one bad night, or one bad hour. If we can learn to manage these situations better as a community, we can improve lives exponentially.”
"In the world of juvenile justice, we have what we call a cradle-to-prison pipeline, especially for those in poverty,” explains Jayette, “I'd love to see that pipeline broken, because everybody deserves a chance, especially those with mental illness. I want to help them and their families to have a better life."
New York and North Carolina are the only two states that can still prosecute a child as young as 16 as though he or she were an adult. If passed, a current bill, “Raise the Age” will raise the age for being considered an adult by the judicial system to 18.
“There was an order signed by the Governor,” says Jayette, “Now the Senate needs to act. We are going up March 8th to lobby for it. Our hope is that by May it will be law. I am planning the thank you plaque already. We also want minors who act out to receive an assessment. So many actions that we consider criminal – bullying, substance abuse, more – have their roots in untreated mental health issues, trauma and/or grief. People don’t usually do these things to be tough. There’s usually something going on.”
“We used to offer alternatives to help kids who were on the wrong track,” she continues, “but now it seems we ruin entire lives over their immature acts. I hope people call their officials and get these laws passed. I really want to see that age raised higher, to at least 21, but I’ll settle for 18 if I have to. Children are not just little adults. Their brains aren’t developed enough to treat them as adults. You know we need to treat adults much better, too, but we should at least start treating our youth with compassion and empathy.”
Insanity Plea and Alternative Court
Jayette is proud to be the NY Liaison for the Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort to get people with mental illness out of jails and into treatment. In addition to NAMI, the coalition includes the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, the American Psychiatric Foundation and numerous law enforcement associations, mental health organizations, and substance abuse organizations.
Jayette herself was instrumental in getting the Suffolk County Mental Health Court up and running. This alternative to Superior and Supreme Court has existed in Central Islip for seven years. In this system, after the indictment and hearing, if it is found that mental illness was prime in factor in a misdemeanor charge, the alternative of court-ordered treatment becomes an option. Another accomplishment was the establishment of the Veterans Mental Health Court in Suffolk County, which celebrated seven years of operations on Veteran’s Day. A Nassau County version is now four years old.
“I would like to see the Mental Health Court expanded to serve felony and substance abuse cases,” says Jayette, “Queens County Mental Health Court, which I sit on the board of, has taken up even violent felonies for about five years now. I believe this is a model that Nassau and Suffolk should pick up on.”
Jayette is grateful to all who have helped make these options available. She is particularly thankful for the Honorable Judge Sol Wachtler – who himself survived a public fall from grace due to mental illness – and the Honorable Judge Jonathan Lippman. Both have been strong allies.
Jayette is adamant about the need to reform the Insanity Plea, under which her own son continues to be held. As things stand, those who are incarcerated are given a clear amount of time for which they will be held. Those deemed mentally ill, on the other hand, are placed in secured psychiatric hospitals where they may be held indefinitely. She cites Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry as a key partner in trying to achieve reform to the Insanity Plea, and notes that he is working closely with NAMI to draft suitable legislation.
“I hope we can find a balance where people who are mentally ill are also granted the dignity of knowing when they might be released.”
Jayette ardently supports solitary housing reform. Over the summer, NPR ran a 3-part series exploring the issue. In New York State, a bill entitled Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Confinement “HALT” has been introduced by NYS Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry. Additional sponsors have since steeped up to help advance this effort to limit the length of solitary confinement allowed, and to provide alternatives when long-term separation is necessary.
Other bills introduced by NYS Correction Committee Chair, Daniel O’Donnell and Committee Member Nily Rozic would further conform New York’s solitary confinement laws to recommendations issued by the United Nations Committee against Torture in November of 2014. Assembly Member O’Donnell’s bill would require solitary confinement to be a measure of last resort for the minimum period necessary. It would also ban solitary confinement for inmates under 21 years old, and for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. Assembly Member Rozic’s bill would ban solitary confinement for pregnant and nursing women.
Jayette is heartened to see so much support in Albany, and will not stop lobbying until change is made. She hopes people will reach out to their State legislators and join her in speaking out for this reform.
Remembering NAMI’s Grass Roots
While advocacy has come to be a key priority that has seen some significant success, Jayette is ever mindful and proud that NAMI is a grass roots organization, and that they still offer direct charity to individuals across Long Island.
You can hear the love in her voice when she talks about the 200 pairs of socks and crisp holiday cards that were recently sent to Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center. You can also hear the pain when she explains why it’s so important, “There are roughly 2,000 people in forensic psychiatric facilities in NYS. They are called ‘The Forgotten People.’ So many of those people have been abandoned and really do feel forgotten. One of them happens to be my son, but I’m not going to let him be forgotten. I’m not going to let ANY of them be forgotten. This helps them know there are people outside who care.”
They also reach out to veterans, including sending care packages of food staples and hygiene products to Liberty Village, the Veteran’s Housing complex in Amityville. In the spring, she looks forward to starting a garden at the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center.
Indeed, NAMI has grown far beyond its roots as a family movement. “We are now 50% families and 50% peers...we are now one big extended family!” Says Jayette, “It’s so important, such a good thing. We support and learn so much from each other. Together we are making a difference.”
You can hear her smile and her pride in this work that has come to fill her life, “We were founded by two mothers who saw a need to support people suffering mental illness and their families. I know they’d be proud of these big changes we’re making, but they’d never want us to forget why it all started. Me neither. People need these things now. They need to know people care about them.”
All of this requires travel. “I’m in Albany it seems for half the year,” says Jayette.
This dedication and service is remarkable, especially as Jayette does not drive. Getting around Long Island without a car is daunting, just to meet basic daily needs. Jayette figures it out so she can help some of our most vulnerable, “I rely on buses and trains. Mostly trains. Amtrak makes it all possible for me.”
She hopes that her dedication to this cause that matters so much to her can also serve as an inspiration for others to work on what they think is really important. Yes, she faces a lot of challenges, but if overcoming them serves to convince other people that they can do it, too, then she’ll take them.
“Anyone can be an advocate. Look at my mom! Got a voice? Talk. Got a computer? A pen and paper? Write. Libraries are great resources. They can help. I can help. I am here to educate, engage and empower. Together we can make lives better for everyone.”
Notes on Additional Resources
Communities for Crisis Intervention Teams in NYC
Families Together in NYS
Mental Health Association of NYS
NY Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services
Stepping Up Initiative:
NPR 3-Part Series on Solitary Confinement
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
Newsday Article on Developing the Crisis Intervention Team in Hempstead
NY Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC)
Common Cause (to learn about/contact government officials)
Watch this Movie:
Kings Park: Stories from an American Mental Institution
Participate in this Event:
NAMI Walk, May 7th at Jones Beach
Contact Jayette Lansbury: