Daria Akers spent some of the darkest days of her life in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, when she was locked up in 2010 in the midst of a mental health crisis. But Tuesday she volunteered to go back inside the jail with a message about mental health for deputies and officers in the newest Crisis Intervention Team Training class.
"I'm sure you see people in crisis all the time," Akers said. "You see them at their worst and you may not be able to see them as your neighbor or your sister or your mother, but that's exactly who we are."
The 41-year-old married her high school sweetheart 19 years ago, is the mother of two and works in a job she enjoys.
"I'm also bipolar," she added.
Five years ago, Akers had just her second manic episode when her medication suddenly failed her. Efforts to have her committed for treatment fell short.
Police were called to her home several times, she said.
"The same two police officers showed up each time," Akers said. "They were wonderful. One always dealt with my husband, the other dealt with me. I remember him very calmly, respectfully trying to convince me I was sick and needed help and me trying to convince him that I was sane and it was my husband who had issues."
Finally, officers advised her husband to take her daughter and leave the home.
"They said there are too many stories about people having psychotic breaks, hurting or even killing their family members," recalled Akers.
One night, her husband went home to do laundry and found his wife in a manic episode, making vacation plans. When he told her she couldn't book a trip, she became furious and threw a phone at him. That time the officers who responded took her into custody.
At the time, offenders with mental health issues were housed in small, windowless cells with the lights left on, day and night.
"I truly believe female receiving is torture," Akers remembered. "Lights are on 24 hours a day ... the noise is maddening, people screaming and yelling constantly."
Akers said most of the deputies were kind to her but she was in full blown psychosis.
"I was not a model prisoner," she said. "I flushed my toilet constantly trying to drown out the noise. I flooded my cell twice by taking my jumpsuit and sticking it into the toilet."
In the midst of her delusions, she became convinced one deputy was going to shoot her.
"That night I attempted to commit suicide by covering myself in feces and eating it. The next day I was declared incompetent to stand trial," Akers said.
She was sent to Western State Hospital.
"My psychosis was so bad they told my husband I may never come back from this," she said.
But after a month, the psychosis broke. A few months later, Akers was back at work.
Now stable, she's bringing a powerful lesson to the 16 deputies and four Fairfax County police officers in the August Crisis Intervention Team training class. The week-long program is designed to help law enforcement better handle offenders with mental health issues.
Akers' story has instant impact. Kendall Jones is a Fairfax County patrol officer who often encounters people in his Mt. Vernon district who are facing mental health challenges.
"So I know when I approach that individual it's not necessarily because they are voluntarily committing a crime, it's because of something they can't control," he said. "To be able to reflect back in this training, to reflect back on her story, kind of helps me to understand there is a family behind it, a history behind it in most cases and that it's involuntary at that time."
Akers is heartened to learn the small cell where she was once placed is no longer used for offenders with mental health issues. Instead, most are are housed in a new unit with windows and a day room.
One deputy in the class said there is also a changing mindset among her colleagues. Sgt. Emily Fary said she has a close relative who suffers from mental illness.
"These are people, too, and they need to be treated with respect and dignity and offer them hope there's going to be a better tomorrow and that we're going to help them get there," Fary said.
Akers is serving on two commissions that formed in the wake of twin tragedies -- the police involved shooting of John Geer in 2013 and the death of mentally ill inmate Natasha McKenna in February after she was tased at the jail. Akers has offered guidance to the Police Ad Hoc Commission's mental health subcommittee. Akers is also serving on the newly created Diversion First task force, aimed at directing some mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of jail.
"The jail diversion program, being able to get people out of the system so they don't get criminal records that affect their future, their ability to get a job and be able to get them into a supportive treatment program is so important," she said. "It's going to save people's lives I truly believe."