Mental health issues hit home for Jim Henry, wife

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Pat Henry, wife of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Henry, has been touring the state, talking about issues of particular importance to her family and many others throughout Tennessee.
   In candid speeches, Mrs. Henry has been sharing the many challenges she and her family have faced while caring for their autistic son, John Henry, now 24 years old. John also has cerebral palsy.
   In the late 1970s, John Henry was diagnosed as profoundly retarded because he could not talk. The Henrys questioned the diagnosis, but placed John in a center for the developmentally challenged where he could receive professional care since John often lashed out in fits of rage while at home.
   "John had a lot of anger inside him," Mrs. Henry says. "He was trying to say, 'I'm in here. Let me out.' "
   When John was 16, doctors determined he was autistic, not retarded. With the help of an aide and a keyboard, John learned to communicate with his parents through typed messages.
   Jim Henry's experiences with his son led him to take up the cause of the developmentally challenged while he was Republican leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives in the 1980s. He headed a task force that studied state services and worked to get many Tennesseans with special-needs out of institutions and mainstreamed back into their communities.
   In 1997, Henry became president of OmniVisions Inc., a Nashville-based organization with more than 650 employees, that serves as a child placement and service agency for the developmentally delayed and for children with behavioral problems in Tennessee and North Carolina. He has served as president and chief executive officer since then.
   Henry, speaking at Roan Mountain State Park last week, said that when developmentally challenged persons are cut off from mental health services they often end up as vagrants on the streets.
   "It doesn't solve anything. We had a round of that in the early '90s and we found out it wasn't very cheap to cut people off that needed medical assistance. Those are the things that the governor has to bring out. Nobody's going to be the champion for mental health."
   After John Henry was diagnosed as being profoundly mentally retarded, Henry said, the family spent years trying to find services available through the government. "My wife has spent a lifetime trying to find a way through the bureaucracy. We ought to simplify that. We ought not make parents go through that.
   "I was in the Legislature and I thought I was a pretty big shot. I'd call up and say, 'This is Rep. Jim Henry. My son needs this ...' It was difficult enough for me. You can imagine [what it's like for] normal parents and families out there trying to find services for their kids that are disabled."
   Henry said the families already are going through enough turmoil just trying to cope with the mental anguish that comes from having a disabled child. "If services are available, they ought to make them consumer-oriented and easy to access instead of making it another traumatic situation for every family to try to access services for kids."
   The number of mentally challenged persons in the state is not overwhelming, so the problem is basically ignored, according to Henry. "They don't squeak a lot, so they don't get much grease. People don't pay a lot of attention to them. But I will tell you that those are the kind of people that can't help themselves, and every society is going to be measured on how it treats those kind of people. We need to treat them in a humane way, and we can afford to do that."
   Having a mentally challenged child becomes particularly tragic when the child reaches adulthood, Henry said. "Children, when they are retarded, everybody likes to cuddle them. But an adult that is 40 years old with mental retardation, it becomes a problem even to bathe them.
   "There's a great degree of adult suicide. The parent getting to the age that they can't take care of the child anymore, and not wanting to turn them in to an institution, often goes in and kills the child, then kills themselves," Henry said.
   While in the state Legislature, Henry began developing respite centers around the state, to give caregivers a much-needed break. "They can get these people somewhere for 24 hours to where they can go get their hair fixed or go shopping by themselves. We have got to develop those respite centers around the state," he said. The nearest center in this area is located in Mountain City.
   Seven years ago, Mrs. Henry was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had to rely on family and friends while undergoing surgery and radiation treatments. She calls the experience "God's gift," saying that it helped her understand her son's frustration with his lack of independence.
   Henry said he has learned first-hand the need to be compassionate. He has watched how his son struggles to try to do things most of us take for granted.
   "It makes you realize just how lucky you are, and that you do have a responsibility to try to help other people. That motivation is a real reason why I would like to serve the people of Tennessee as their next governor," he said.