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Coronavirus is Bringing Back The 'Lost Art' of Letter Writing for This Mom

The following article was originally published May 14, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

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Story by Robert Garrova

 

 

Reporter Roundup is a collaboration between PBS SoCal/KCET and KPCC/LAist to bring you the biggest headlines M-F about COVID-19. Watch the May 14 episode here.

Diane Rabinowitz' son Tariq Carlson has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

"In the first few years, he heard voices, he had hallucinations, you could tell by the way he expressed himself that he had delusional thinking," Rabinowitz said.

She's been fighting to help her son for a long time, as Carlson shifted among different treatments, homelessness and jail. Over the past few years, Rabinowitz said Carlson, 28, has spent more time in Twin Towers jail than at home. And that's where he is now, finishing out his time for a misdemeanor. She declined to say exactly what his crime was.

Carlson is one of thousands of people living with a mental illness inside an L.A. County jail. And with in-person visitation frozen because of the coronavirus, they're more cut off from the outside world than ever.

But even before the pandemic put a pause on friends and family coming inside the jail, Rabinowitz said Carlson would go through periods of refusing her visits.

Now left without the option to visit, Rabinowitz has been trying a new old way to connect with her son: She's mailing letters and getting family friends to do the same.

That's led to an unexpected positive story in our COVID-19 world: Rabinowitz' written correspondence that grew out of necessity has opened up a whole new channel of communication with Carlson.

Tariq Carlson, left, and mom Diane Rabinowitz. Carlson is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and is incarcerated at Twin Towers jail. | Courtesy of Diane Rabinowitz
Tariq Carlson, left, and mom Diane Rabinowitz. Carlson is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and is incarcerated at Twin Towers jail. | Courtesy of Diane Rabinowitz

Her son calls from the jail "to compliment the letters," Rabinowitz said. "He's been touched by these letters and it's been really gratifying."

Carlson's mailbox is also getting a boost thanks to Dede Ranahan, a writer who's advocated for people with mental illness since her own son got sick over 25 years ago. With the pandemic serving to further isolate those with mental health issues, Ranahan added a "Pen Pals" section to her blog, where family members can post the mailing addresses of their incarcerated loved ones.

"I don't have nearly as much hope or idealism that I had when I started," Ranahan said. "I think our whole mental health system is worse than it was when I began, and now, with COVID-19, resources are getting stretched more and the need for mental health services is increasing."

Still, Ranahan is hoping her blog will have some positive impact for people living with a serious mental illness. "You help the person standing in front of you and if it goes further than that, great," she said.

Carrie Bearden, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, loved the idea of keeping in touch during the pandemic through letters. She said it's important for people to try to find new ways of connecting with people in their lives that may be outside the norm.

"There's a lot of literature [showing] that being socially isolated actually leads to earlier mortality and increased rates of heart attack, stroke and so forth," Bearden said. "So [there can be] lots of physical consequences."

For her part, Rabinowitz believes the letters are giving her son something physical to return to when the loneliness of living with a mental illness in isolation sets in.

"I think we've lost the art of letter writing until now," Rabinowitz said. "[But it's] coming back and that's a good thing."

 

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