Updated: Tuesday, 11 Jan 2011, 6:35 PM CST Published : Tuesday, 11 Jan 2011, 6:16 PM CST
HOUSTON - Dr. James McSwain says his son, Phillip, fully believed the visions and delusions that haunted him. The Lamar High School principal was completely caught off guard by his son’s mental illness.
"Frequently my bedroom door would open in the middle of the night, 2 a.m., 3 a.m. He'd sit down on the side of the bed. I knew by that time it meant 'they're here'. Meaning the aliens were in his room. I would just simply reach out and put my hand on his arm and talk to him. I'd say 'It's Dad. If you can hear my voice then you know I'm real'. It would take about 30 minutes or so and he could calm down and go back to sleep for a little while."
Dr. McSwain says his son's mental illness started late in his teenage years.
"He was just any other normal kid growing up. Going through school he was a bright handsome kid. He got his advanced honors diploma, played sports, started college, went to the Marine Corps. He went from being on top of the world, going to college and doing all the things you expect him to do, to being in a homeless shelter here in Houston. By age 24 we had a full scale diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia. He was tormented by the idea that the aliens and the government were in a conspiracy."
If you've ever watched the movie "A Beautiful Mind", Dr. McSwain says the film was "spot on in regards to Paranoid Schizophrenia".
The high school principal says his son was never dangerous but he can relate to the parents of the suspected Arizona gunman who allegedly killed six people and injured fourteen others including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
"When you look at a case like this that affects an entire nation, it's a time for us to examine what are we doing for the mentally ill in this country?"
Getting help for his son seemed to be an uphill battle.
"We tried to take it on with everything we had. We second mortgaged the house. We burned the credit cards. Financially we'll never dig out and we had good insurance. So families that don't have that, it becomes just overwhelming. That's why so many of our mentally ill people end up on the streets. You know the Harris County Jail treats more mentally ill individuals than the entire state of Texas mental health system combined.”
His office at Lamar High School is full of family photos including smiling snapshots of his son Phillip.
"As principal of this high school we see it here also. I've had parents sit in this office with kids who are exhibiting mental illness and I've had parents cry and say, 'What do we do? Where can we go to get help?' I had to tell them, 'I don't know’.”
The frustrated father says at one point his son was arrested because of the visions in his head. He says he had to make the difficult decision to keep his son in jail, for months, because at least there he would get help.
Dr. McSwain says his son started drinking alcohol to make the delusions go away. At 31, Philip died when a combination of alcohol and his medication stopped his heart.
"I honestly believe had we been able to get some long-term care for Phillip he would still be alive today. If you are wealthy it's available."