by Joseph M. Bowers
As a society we seem to have chosen to put mentally ill people in jails and prisons rather than hospitals and other treatment options. This is partly because of the failure of our mental health system, but the system has failed partly because we have chosen to let it fail. We have done this because of the nature of mental illnesses and public perceptions.
Mentally ill people act in ways that do not engender sympathy. We scare people and put them off with bizarre, some times violent behavior that is very hard to understand. Few things in life are as terrifying as the thought of losing your mind.
When people see someone who has, they often try to believe that this can’t and will not happen to them. They sometimes fortify this hope by demonizing the mentally ill: “They are weak lacking character and will power. I’m better than that. They had bad parents.” Mother blaming is still way too common. Also people often think that these cases are hopeless and trying to help is pointless.
Widespread public perception of the mentally ill needs to be changed. The way we react to mental illness must change if we are to claim to be a compassionate, civilized people. How do we do that?
D J Jaffe is a powerful and passionate advocate for the mentally ill whom I follow closely and for whom I have much respect. He believes we react so poorly partly because advocacy groups like NAMI downplay violence associated with mental illness. We need to scare society into action emphasizing how dangerous the mentally ill often are. I disagree. This is negative reinforcement which is rarely effective. We need positive reinforcement. Instead of emphasizing how dangerous untreated mentally ill often are, I would emphasize what an asset to society effectively treated mentally ill people can be.
We need stories of recovery-stories of hope. That’s where I come in.
On February 16, 1964 I turned 17 years old. I was very sick at the time. Before the end of February, I stole up the stairs of our house one night carrying a loaded shotgun intending to kill my beloved grandmother whom I believed was possessed by the devil. With her late husband she had raised me from infancy. There was no one in the world I was closer to, but she had to die I believed. I didn’t kill her through good fortune and instead spent the next two and a half months in a state mental hospital in lower New York State.
Four years later I was arrested for being in a stranger’s house in Middletown, New York. I had never seen that house before but believed I lived there.
Ten years after that I was arrested in Tucson, Arizona and charged with arson. I was burning part of my golf bag thinking I was destroying a dangerous and ancient demon.
In all I had more than 20 years of recurring psychotic episodes with lucid periods in between. With a medication change I have been mostly symptom free more than 30 years now.
Counter-intuitively I was very lucky in that I first got sick in the ’60s rather than later in our history. In the ’60s we still treated people with serous mental illnesses in hospitals. I was also lucky in that I respond pretty well to treatment.
Between the lucid periods and the extended period mostly symptom free, I have lived a fairly normal, successful life. I’ve earned a B.S. degree from a major university and been married more than 43 years. My wife and I have raised three children all of whom are now adult productive members of society. I am retired from nearly 30 years in the power industry working mostly as a lab tech. I am living where I wish to live and doing what I wish to do.
I am not that unique. Sadly today most people need to commit a serious crime to get the treatment they need-much improved over what was available to me in the past. In the past though, it was much easier to get into treatment. I have friends who have committed serious assault even taken innocent lives who are very stable now with belated but effective treatment. They are making valuable contributions to our community.
What I want people to understand is that many people who are very sick, even dangerous properly cared for can be productive contributors to society living fairly normal, successful lives. When they go to the revolving door of homelessness and jail they are not only a danger to society, they are a loss to society of potentially valuable resources.
Not everyone responds well to treatment, but everyone can have the quality of their lives improved properly cared for. At worst someone requiring permanent hospitalization is less costly there than in the revolving door.
Society is a big time loser when we fail families dealing with serious mental illness.