Aidan Spillane spends much of the late evening on his knees, praying before a small painted crucifix that lies on the floor of his second-story bedroom.
Hands clasped and head bowed, Spillane prays for strength to face his mental illness. And some days, Spillane, 21, prays to forget. To forget the 355 days he spent locked up in a state psychiatric hospital among sometimes violent strangers, with a gnawing fear he might never get out.
“The Lord preached forgiveness, but it’s really hard to forgive those who took away so much of my life,” said Spillane, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18.
Spillane was sent to the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center in July 2014 after he poured gasoline over his head and set himself on fire, burning 40 percent of his body. Though he quickly stabilized, Spillane spent a year confined there, largely because the state had nowhere else to send him. His long confinement underscores deep and worsening problems with Minnesota’s second-largest psychiatric hospital, as well as chronic bottlenecks across the state’s entire system of community health services.
The state agency that oversees Anoka-Metro recently made the alarming admission that nearly half of the 102 patients at Anoka-Metro have stabilized and do not need acute psychiatric care, but are kept at the hospital because they have nowhere to go in the community. Last fiscal year, patients spent 13,438 non-acute days at the hospital, costing taxpayers about $15 million, state records show.
“It’s cruel and inhumane to have someone living out their lives in a hospital setting when they could be living out their lives in the community,” said Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the House committee that oversees Anoka-Metro.
In March, Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper unveiled a $30 million-plus set of proposals designed to improve patient flow throughout the state’s mental health system.
They include a new program in St. Peter for patients facing criminal trials and an expanded transition program at Anoka-Metro.
Yet the initiatives have been criticized by some advocates as too modest and incremental to solve the emerging crisis at Anoka-Metro.
A surge of admissions from county jails has overwhelmed the 110-bed facility, causing growing numbers of patients to get “stuck in place.”
The average length of stay at Anoka-Metro has swelled by 50 percent, from 88 days in 2011 to 133 days, or nearly five months.
A year of life, missed
Spillane now lives on his own in a Mendota Heights townhouse with round-the-clock support staff. The former high school wrestler still suffers occasional panic attacks, and moments when the voices in his head become God-like commands, which he tries to silence through prayer.
Most days, he comes and goes as he chooses, a free man relearning how to live after nearly two years cycling through institutions.
Yet Spillane still feels bound by the months he was confined to a locked unit at Anoka-Metro, isolated from family and friends.
The experience weighs on him as he wrestles with what he calls “my inner demons” and charts a course toward self-reliance.
With an edge of resentment in his voice, Spillane discussed the experiences he missed: his older sister’s wedding, his grandmother’s funeral in New York and the afternoons he would have spent hanging out with friends, watching Minnesota Wild hockey games.
“I needed help. I had racing thoughts. But I didn’t need a year in that horrible place,” he said. “I’m not crazy.”
Eight months after being discharged from Anoka-Metro, Spillane said he is haunted by memories of his year there. His hands shaking, he recalled watching a pregnant woman pummel another patient in the face (“Like this!” he said, punching the air).
He saw other patients eat their own feces, scream at staff and run naked through the hallways. But most of all, Spillane remembers the long, empty hours with nothing to do except stare at the walls and wait for his next dose of antipsychotic medication.
Spillane said he tried to gain release from the hospital by refusing to eat for nearly two weeks. He plunged to a mere 112 pounds before he passed out and was taken to a hospital; he was given food intravenously before being sent back to Anoka-Metro.
Shocked by his emaciated frame, Spillane’s mother, Laura Hahn, began frantically calling other hospitals and adult foster care homes that might accept him. She even notified Anoka County’s adult protection office that her son was at risk of dying of malnutrition.
Yet dozens of community providers, from Minneapolis to Duluth, turned her down, citing concerns about Spillane’s impulsive and self-injurious behavior, Hahn said.
“I begged, I pleaded, I cried, and I kept saying, ‘My son is dying in there!’ ” said Hahn, who lives in West St. Paul. “But no one would listen.”
Dr. Timothy Beyer, a psychiatrist who recently left Anoka-Metro, was among those inside the hospital who thought Spillane was in the wrong place. Beyer, who spent a year providing therapy to Spillane, said he belonged in a facility, such as the University of Minnesota Medical Center, with expertise in treating young people with early onset of psychosis.
“It was very frustrating, because he did not need to be hospitalized on a psychiatric unit,” Beyer said. “It implicates our whole mental health care system that we couldn’t find a safe place for Aidan.”
Yet, like many patients at Anoka-Metro, Spillane was in a dilemma. The self-injurious behavior that landed him there made group homes and other residential providers reluctant to take him as a client.
Moreover, Spillane was still showing dangerous symptoms of psychosis while at Anoka-Metro. Soon after arriving, he tried to ignite himself with candles in the hospital chapel. He disrobed in a public area and was setting his alarm every five minutes to pray, according to court documents. “He has expressed the belief that he must follow the directions of God no matter what it is,” wrote an Anoka-Metro administrator, in a 2015 court petition.
Parents step in
Spillane also had the misfortune to arrive at Anoka-Metro at a troubling time for the hospital. A year before his admission, a state law took effect that required the state to admit people from jails or prisons within 48 hours after they are deemed by a court to be mentally ill. Within months, Anoka-Metro was inundated with inmates from county jails — many with violent histories.
Though Spillane has no criminal record, he and other patients now carry the stigma of county jails, Beyer said. “Now, everyone coming from Anoka-Metro is presumed to have criminal tendencies,” he said. “It’s a real catch-22.”
Eventually, after months of letters and phone calls, Spillane’s parents gave up on finding a residential center for their son. Instead, they bought and renovated a small townhouse in Mendota Heights, and then recruited a team of caregivers to help him with daily tasks and to calm him when symptoms of his psychosis flare up.
Though angry at the state for locking him up, Spillane is ready to move on. He’s working on a science fiction novel and has been taking regular classes to prepare for the sacrament of confirmation.
On a recent morning, he told stories and cracked jokes with his caregivers as he tried on a new suit at Macy’s. He planned to wear it to church on Easter Sunday.
As Spillane posed in front of a changing-room mirror, his burn scars barely visible under a blue suit, he beamed and said, “I do look good, don’t I? Like my old self.”