Hearing Voices: America’s Mental Health Emergency

Mental illness and a broken system have all but destroyed a bright Los Angeles attorney's promising life.

Despite the best efforts of his family and friends to get him mental health treatment, Rob Dart, 44, is recently seen while homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.

By Tom Sileo Published on April 11, 2024

Rob Dart is a brilliant 44-year-old man with a good heart. He is also one of tens of millions of Americans whose lives and families have been devastated by a mental health crisis.

“If he had cancer, it would be so much easier,” Rob’s older sister, Jennifer Dart, told The Stream. “Cancer is horrible, but it’s worse when you can’t help the person.”

It hurts to write this column because I’ve known Rob for 35 years. He is without question one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. From our third-grade class at Louise Archer Elementary until our last day of high school in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Vienna, Virginia, there was never any doubt in my mind that Rob would enjoy tremendous success.

He did. After we graduated from James Madison High School in 1997, Rob went on to Duke University and then the University of Chicago Law School. We didn’t keep in close touch during that timeframe, but when we eventually reconnected years later on Facebook and LinkedIn, his accomplishments were thoroughly unsurprising. Everyone knew that Rob was destined for greatness.

The Voices

Rob got married, welcomed a son, and landed his first job at a Chicago law firm. After clerking for a judge in Tennessee, he moved to Los Angeles and began rapidly ascending through the legal world. The sky was the limit—until the voices started.

“It was really scaring him,” said Jennifer, 47, who now lives in North Carolina. “At first he thought it was fun … then the voices turned against him.”

The next 13 years would become an even bigger nightmare for Rob and those closest to him, including his mother, Sherry, and his now ex-wife and young son.

“We didn’t realize that the disease would progress to the point where he didn’t know he was sick,” Jennifer said. “Now he’s so far gone that he believes his delusions.”

Wanting to Get Better

Rob suffers from schizoaffective disorder — bipolar type. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the symptoms, which can be severe and require close monitoring, include hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking, depressed mood, and manic behavior.

Shortly after his divorce, Rob retreated to northern Virginia to spend time with his mom and sister. That was when he discovered the biggest motivation to overcome his mental illness.

“He really wanted to get back to (his son), who was very young,” Jennifer said. “He was so upset that he was missing being with him. It drove him to get better and get stabilized.”

Rob started taking medication and eventually moved back to Southern California to resume his legal career. Over the next few years, as he continued to manage his disease, he was granted more visitation rights that eventually grew to include sleepovers, Disneyland, and ski trips.

“I thought he would never jeopardize his relationship with (his son),” Jennifer said.

‘He Was All Alone’

But then COVID-19 unleashed panic on America and the world. Rob, who had already been complaining about his medication’s severe side effects, had the bad fortune of being in California, which had one of the nation’s most stringent lockdown policies.

“He was all alone,” Jennifer said. “He lost contact with his doctors during COVID-19.”

After going downhill for about a year and a half, Rob had completely stopped taking his medication by the end of 2021.

“He talked really, really fast,” Jennifer said. “He started to get meaner and meaner — easily agitated, snapping at people.”

Perhaps the worst effects of all were felt by Rob’s son. After Rob began “telling lies about his mom and his mom’s family,” he unsuccessfully tried to use the legal system to gain custody before all contact was eventually cut off.

“Then, he stopped taking care of himself. He stopped bathing and had trash piled up,” Jennifer said, while noting that Rob still kept his son’s room neat and clean. “Then, the manic writing. He was self-publishing … the books don’t make sense.”

‘I’m Homeless’

Rob was evicted from his apartment, but took advantage of California’s legal system to return for a few more months before eventually being kicked out for good.

This was around the time I began to realize something was very wrong with my friend. About two months after I wished Rob a happy birthday on his Facebook page, he began making to a series of bizarre, incoherent blog posts. Then, on October 2, 2023, he dropped a bombshell.

“Hi guys. I’m homeless again,” he posted on Facebook. “If anyone can help, please reach out. Thanks.”

Four days later, Rob posted two pictures of what appeared to be a serious leg injury. To his family’s horror, it turned out to be a gunshot wound.

“He was meditating on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He might have been scared. He was not looking for drugs,” said Jennifer, relaying what Rob had told a friend. “A guy with a gun – possibly someone tired of homeless people – just started shooting at him and hit his leg.”

Rob refused treatment and was released from the hospital as a homeless man on crutches. It mirrored what by then had happened many times: Rob showing up at a treatment center, clearly suffering from mental illness — only to be let back out either because of his legal skills or the center’s outright negligence. California voters recently approved a measure to rewrite the state’s mental health laws, but for families in crisis, there is no time to waste.

“He’s basically a child — he can’t take care of himself,” said Jennifer, who along with her mother has spent more than a decade trying to get Rob the help he so desperately needs. “When they put him back out on the street, he got shot. What else is it going to take?”

Mental Illness: Rob Dart Yearbook Pics

A collection of photos from Rob Dart’s high school yearbook (author’s own).

Memories

As I looked through my high school yearbook the night before writing this piece, I rediscovered pages filled not only with Rob’s many academic and athletic achievements, but his infectious smile. Through all our growing-up years, I had always viewed Rob as the guy who had it all together.

Rob didn’t smoke or drink. Even though he was branded as one of our high school’s two “worst drivers,” he would offer sober rides homes to buddies who had consumed too much alcohol. Rob wasn’t my closest high school friend, but he was always someone to depend on if one of us got ourselves in a jam. Drugs and alcohol didn’t put Rob on the street; it was those dreaded voices and a mental health system that failed to listen.

“We can’t assume all homeless people are where they are because they don’t want to work or they’re alcoholics,” Jennifer said. “But perhaps my brother will turn to drugs if he finds his way to Skid Row.

“He’s been arrested before – usually for trespassing – but they let him go,” she added. “Rob is never violent; it’s usually that he won’t leave somewhere. But when he sees the police, he’s respectful.”

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I managed to make contact with Rob on Facebook before writing this column. I told him about some resources for homeless people in Southern California; Rob replied with a rambling, incoherent message.

I also contacted Rob’s mom, who endures feelings of hopelessness and pain at the mere thought of her son’s crushing plight and his refusal to speak with her or Jennifer. Other than family and friends, her biggest source of comfort is a weekly support group for loved ones of people with mental illness that’s held at a church in the heart of my hometown.

“The more we can shine the light on this horrific disease, the better,” Sherry said in a Facebook message. “We are still trying to get help, of course. We want people to know.”

The Real Rob

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in five Americans suffers from mental illness. By definition, this is a national emergency.

Visit almost any major city, and you will see, hear, and feel that fact firsthand. Our nation’s mental health crisis has gotten so out of control that even a bright, kind soul like Rob — raised in an affluent suburb and holding degrees from two of America’s most prestigious universities – can end up alone, confused, and afraid while aimlessly wandering in worn-out shoes.

“My brother — they won’t let us help him. This is the fault of the system and the doctors,” an emotional Jennifer explained. “I wouldn’t blame the police — they’ve tried to help. It’s the laws that have made my brother this way. This didn’t have to happen.”

As Rob Dart spends another night sleeping on the street, our country needs to wake up. If mental illness hasn’t affected your life already, it almost certainly will at some point. It could strike your child, spouse, significant other, sibling, parent, friend, or even you.

“The real Rob on his medicine is just the nicest person in the world,” said Jennifer. “My goal is to be as nice as Rob used to be.”

Please join The Stream in praying for the entire Dart family and millions more suffering the crushing effects of America’s mental health crisis.

 

Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is the author of the forthcoming I Have Your Back, the recently released Be Bold and coauthor of Three Wise MenBrothers Forever8 Seconds of Courage and Fire in My Eyes. Follow him on X @TSileo and The Stream at @Streamdotorg.

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