Having a Serious Mental Illness in the Sixties Versus Now

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

The prognosis for me with my serious mental illness in 1964 was better than it would be for me today.

 

I was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic in 1964 in a state mental hospital. My diagnosis was recently changed to bipolar 1 with psychotic features. I had two bad psychotic episodes in the sixties. I was a minor the first time and admitted to a state mental hospital. The second time as an adult I was initially arrested and held overnight. In the morning I saw a judge who ruled that I should go to the psychiatric hospital. Due to the nature of my delusions, I agreed to sign myself in. In both cases I was kept for several months during which time I was effectively treated.

 

Through most of the seventies, I had only minor episodes that didn’t get me in serious trouble.

 

In 1979 I had a really bad episode that resulted in my again being arrested. By this time, the system had already deteriorated significantly. Initially I went to jail because there were no beds available in the hospital that had a psych ward. When eventually I got to the psych ward they couldn’t keep me because I did not present a danger to myself or others so it was back to jail. At my insistence, my court appointed lawyer found grounds for me to return to the hospital a couple of times. Overall I spent more than three times as many days in the jail as in the hospital.

 

In the jail I experienced psychical restraints and solitary confinement. However, in that jail at that time a guard came by each evening carrying a tray full of medications. I was given a cup of liquid Thorazine which the guard stood and watched until I drank it. If I had wanted to fake it, it would have been much harder than Jack Nicholson faking taking a pill. Eventually, I stabilized and returned to life outside.

 

Over the intervening years, I have had one more extensive stay in a psych ward, but have found a more effective medication and have learned to control my disease very well. I have not had a serious psychotic episode in a very long time.

 

These days I try to advocate any way I can for the four percent with serious mental illnesses. To that end, I volunteer at a local drop in center for the mentally ill. There I get to talk with people recently released from the nearby state mental hospital and people working toward release who are doing well enough to get day passes.

 

Invariably, these people have been kept not a matter of months like I was but a matter of years-most often sex to eight years. I ask myself why that is.

 

Everyone I have talked to got to the hospital through the legal system. To be released they can’t simply recover to where a psychiatrist will declare them well. They get periodic court appearances where a judge decides if justice has been done and if they would be safe out on the street.

Why did they all get there through the legal system? If an adult is seriously mentally ill and doesn’t know it, he can’t be forced into treatment. Eventually he will run afoul of the law for something minor or major. If someone has enough awareness to seek treatment, he probably can’t find it. If he does, few of us can afford it. Eventually he will further deteriorate and usually get arrested for some crime he has committed-if he is lucky.

 

 

 

 

 

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