Widow: Bipolar disorder behind 'senseless' death
DANVILLE – Sorting through family pictures recently, Samantha Brandel found it almost impossible to find a picture where her late husband, Michael Brandel, didn't have a big smile on his face.
"He was such a happy person. He wanted everyone around him to be happy. He gave off a really positive vibe, and people loved to be around him," she said.
But there were times when Mike's happy nature succumbed to sadness and deep depression, according to Samantha.
"Because of his bipolar disease, he had his ups and downs," she said. "Some days he was really, really happy, and other days he was sad."
Samantha, who lives in Mattoon with their two children, Isabel, 9, and Ian, 8, knew that Mike, 40, was depressed the week of his death. In recent months, he had been growing more frustrated, she said, because he couldn't find a job and was worsening, especially, after visiting his very ill grandfather, whom he idolized. Samantha talked to Mike by phone during that visit, and knew he was growing more manic, she said.
The night of Nov. 27, Vermilion County sheriff's deputies were called to Mike's residence in Home Gardens south of Danville, because he was destroying the interior of his rented house. Property owner Doug Macklin had known Mike for three years, visiting with him almost daily. But that night, Mike didn't recognize Macklin, closing the door in his face before continuing his destruction, according to Macklin, who called the police.
Details of what happened in the house after police entered have not yet been released. State police are investigating and have said deputies used a Taser, and Mike continued to resist, thrusting a sharpened piece of broken wood at officers. One deputy fired three times, striking Mike, according to state police, and the autopsy showed two penetrating gunshot wounds. There was no evidence of close-range fire, according to police, and toxicology results on Mike are still pending.
Samantha said she has compassion for the deputy who shot Mike and calls his death "senseless."
During a recent trip to Danville to get Mike's ashes, Samantha said she and the children are slowly getting through the grieving process.
"We are all in counseling trying to accept this tragedy. We never imagined that we would have to live our lives without him," said Samantha, who legally separated from Mike in 2007, the same year he graduated summa cum laude from Lakeland College and accepted a job at Time-O-Matic in Danville.
Samantha said she didn't want Mike to move, but he wanted to support the family. He didn't work there long, she said, and got a new job at the Newport Chemical Depot in Indiana. That job ended after a year, and he began looking for employment.
"He was getting increasingly bothered by the fact that he wasn't finding a job. He was surviving on unemployment and trying to pay child support, and it was just a strain on him, and I could tell that he was getting more and more manic," she said.
The oldest of three siblings, Mike grew up in Michigan, graduating salutatorian of his 1988 Shepherd High School class, but in his early twenties, he was diagnosed bipolar.
"He did not want to be medicated. He didn't like the drugs that they gave him," Samantha said. "It completely drained him of his personality. ... So, he chose to deal with his bipolar disease and his manic episodes on his own, and he generally had a handle on it."
It was his large personality and his love for his two oldest children from a previous relationship that attracted Samantha when she first met him.
At 6' 3" and more than 200 pounds, she said, Mike could be intimidating to those who didn't know him.
But he was a sensitive, intelligent, musically-inclined family man, guarded about who he let get close to him, but not with his children, she said. He was a wonderful father and loved spending time with his children, helping with homework, teaching them to fish, even playing dolls with Isabel.
But Samantha said it wasn't always easy, with his bipolar disease and her own bouts with anxiety and depression.
"It was sometimes difficult for us to see eye-to-eye, especially since we both always felt we were right; so we would clash," she said.
During their separation, Mike and Samantha continued a long-distance relationship, she said, and he spent every weekend with the kids. During the week, he talked with them every day by phone, singing to them at night.
"There was not a violent bone in his body. He didn't even like it when I scolded the children," she said. Even at his most manic, which wasn't often, she said, he was never violent, but he told her that he would sometimes hallucinate.
"When he would be very loud, very animated, I never ever felt threatened or that he would hurt anyone," she said. "It was totally out of his character to be violent."
Mark Heyrman, law professor at the University of Chicago and chair of public policy for Mental Health America, said about 1 percent to 2 percent of the population, or about 13 million people, are diagnosed bipolar. Typically, they have extreme mood swings, he said, from very, very depressed, sometimes suicidal to very, very up, even lacking sound judgment and getting extremely optimistic. A small percentage, he said, at some point will become psychotic, losing touch with reality and becoming unresponsive.
Samantha said that Mike didn't like to talk about his disease, and didn't tell many people, like his landlord Macklin. She saw the symptoms after their relationship first started.
"I tried to bring it up a few times, because I could see some of the behavior, the extreme happiness and then the extreme sadness within hours of each other," she said. "I kind of talked to him about it, but he wasn't very forthcoming. I had to research the disease on my own to find out what it was."
Samantha said when he would have manic episodes, "it was delicate," and she dealt with it as long as she could, basically "giving him room but he did not want to be medicated."
Heyrman said some refuse to take medication, because they like the feeling of the up mood swings. Also, he said, all medications have side effects, so there are some useful reasons for not taking medication. Lots of people who are bipolar are very successful in all sorts of pursuits, he said, so it's not a disease that prevents you from succeeding. But particularly if symptoms are out of control, that person can be difficult to live with.
The week of his death, Samantha said, she knew Mike was very overwhelmed, so she didn't send the kids. Now, she said, she wonders if things would have been different if she had, or if she would have gone to visit. She also wonders if things would have been different if he would have been more open about his disease.
Samantha said she would like to see something positive come out of this.
"I don't know exactly what I can do, but even if it is just bring awareness about mental illness to law enforcement," she said.
Heyrman said special training is being given more and more to police, on how to recognize and handle people with mental illness. One of the most nationally recognized training programs started in Memphis, called Crisis Intervention Team. Heyrman said it's being introduced in a variety of places nationally and in Illinois.
According to the CIT web site, more than 1 million people with schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness are not being treated on any given day. For years, the law enforcement community has borne the brunt of this crisis with its officers responding to individuals who become psychotic and sometimes dangerous, according to the website. The Memphis Crisis Intervention Team is a police-based first-responder program that gives law enforcement-based training that has proven successful in helping individuals with mental illness and also in reducing police officer injury rates.
Heyrman said it's figuring out how to respond so that no one gets hurt. Some situations are preventable, he said, but some are not.
But it's becoming more critical in Illinois, he said, where the state has cut back on mental health services so much over the years that police really are the first responders for a significant number of people suffering mental health crises.
Vermilion County Sheriff Pat Hartshorn said the department has officers who have received the CIT training.
"But the purpose of the training is not to deal with people who are trying to stab you. It's to help people who are in lesser degrees of psychosis," he said.
And due to the state of Illinois' cuts in mental health services, he said, not only are police officers becoming the first responders to mental health problems, but the county jails are becoming the mental institutions of the 21st century.
"When we have an inmate that has been committed by the courts to a state mental hospital, we have somewhere in the area of a four- to five-month waiting time to get them in because they have reduced the number of beds so drastically," he said.
Hartshorn added that because so many people with mental illness are left in the community, it's important that friends, relatives and parents recognize when people are deteriorating and use the legal means available to them through the courts to seek a court order that allows a person to be hospitalized.