Four years after Kathleen Prisco of Fort Salonga was arrested for stabbing her husband to death in what her attorney called a "haze of delusional paranoia," the couple's two sons and their best friend are traveling to all 50 states this summer to raise awareness about mental illness.
Matthew and Christopher Prisco and friend Bryan Gallagher, all of Fort Salonga, call themselves "The Blinking Cowboys" because of the flashy cowboy outfits they wear. Those include sequin-studded cowboy hats with blinking lights and self-decorated neon green shirts emblazoned with mental health slogans such as "Country stomps out stigma" to encourage people and families dealing with mental illness to seek help.
In October 2009, Matthew, now 25, found his father, Ralph, 54, stabbed to death by his mother in their home. In 2010, a judge found Kathleen Prisco, now 52, not guilty by reason of mental disease and defect, and sentenced her to treatment at an upstate high-security psychiatric facility.
While Matthew said his mother's condition has since improved and she may soon be released to a facility closer to Long Island, the family long struggled with how to address her mental state before their father's death.
Matthew said the siblings, including sister Melissa, 22, suspected their mother needed psychiatric treatment after she sometimes complained that she was being followed or that her phone calls were being recorded. But the siblings didn't know how to broach the subject as a family.
"When we saw that she was losing her grasp on reality, we didn't know what to do," Matthew said. "Certainly we can talk to her, but to say, 'You need help. You need to go to a psychiatrist,' it's not a discussion that we really knew how to have. We were really victims of that stigma. Now we want to do our part to address that."
'Start a discussion'
The Prisco brothers and Gallagher are embarking on a three-month road trip to music festivals and national landmarks, starting Thursday in Nashville and scheduled to end in New Jersey in September. They will chronicle their self-funded travels on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
"What we really want to do is start a discussion," said Matthew, a Princeton University graduate who works for the employee benefits company his late father owned. "To let people know that 'You're not alone.' "
"We have realized the type of attention we generate; this is a way for us to refocus that attention, on something that is bigger than us."
Thomas F. Liotti, a Garden City attorney who represented Kathleen Prisco, said he's not surprised the family would tackle mental health issues in public, noting that he was impressed by Matthew's maturity during court proceedings.
"I'm sure he missed his dad greatly and was probably angry at his mom for what transpired," Liotti said. "But he rose to a higher level and knew this was about mental illness."
Christopher, 20, a student at Chaminade High School in Mineola at the time of his father's death, is a senior at Princeton, studying economics, and Melissa is attending St. John's Law School, her father's alma mater.
Gallagher, 26, has known Matthew since childhood and said the trio hopes that by traveling and talking to strangers about mental health issues they can encourage others to seek help for themselves or loved ones.
"With breast cancer or other diseases there are thousands of avenues to go down," Gallagher said. "With mental illness it's not as much of an open book. We want to help people figure out where they can turn to."
One of the groups the brothers want to promote is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group with chapters throughout the country.
Donald Capone, executive director of NAMI New York State, lauded the young men's initiative. Capone said it's long been a challenge to get the word out about mental health issues because of the stigma attached to mental illness and seeking help.
"One in four families is going to have some sort of contact with a mental illness," Capone said. "It could be a short-term problem, it could be a long-term problem, but the issue is people don't know how to approach the illness. There needs to be more education and awareness."