Our Mental Health System is a Symptom of an Unhealthy Society

Joseph Merlin Bowers


I think most of us would agree that our brains are the most important part of our bodies. Yet, as a society, we don’t handle brain issues nearly as well as issues with all other body parts.

When someone calls 911 because of a crises like a heart attack, a diabetic shock, a seizure, a broken leg or anything like that, the first responders are medical professionals usually EMTs. When 911 is called because of a mental health crises, the first responders are almost always policemen. Why is that? In a healthy society wouldn’t one expect mental health professionals?

With almost any type of problem like cancer, heart disease or diabetes at the first sign of trouble, aggressive treatment is started. When someone becomes psychotic and lacks awareness, aggressive treatment doesn’t begin until the disease progresses to stage four and the patient is deemed a danger to himself or others or is gravely disabled. What?!!? Given the known value of early intervention, would that happen in a healthy society? I think not. If a professional did that with cancer, heart disease or any such thing, he or she would be sued for malpractice and probably loose their license to practice.

From cancer to measles with any type of problem with any other part of the body, we have worked long and hard seeking prevention and treatment. In virtually every area of medicine, for virtually every type of illness or injury we have made tremendous advances. Not so much for serious mental illnesses. Until we do, our society can not be considered healthy.

For a lot of reasons, there are very few long term civil commitment beds in Colorado. Our state mental institution in Pueblo now is entirely forensic. We have been sued twice and will be again because of a huge backlog of people awaiting competency hearings so they can stand trial for minor and sometimes major crimes.

When I meet with a policy maker, I usually tell them about an event that took place in 1964 in upstate New York and explain why that is meaningful to modern day Colorado: Believing that the Devil had forcefully removed my grandmother’s soul from her body and was inhabiting it himself waiting for an opportunity to destroy me, I went upstairs one night with a loaded shotgun to her bedroom. The plan was to kill the body. As the devil left the lifeless body, my waiting spirit friends would capture him and imprison him in inescapable confinement. The battle of good versus evil would soon be over with us good guys victorious! I probably had a plan for restoring my grandmother to life.

Reaching the top of the stairs, I looked through the open door to my grandmother’s bedroom directly across the hallway and saw her knelling at bedside obviously praying. Confused I went on down the hall. The Devil praying? I told myself that somehow he had been warned and was trying to fool me. I went into the room, cocked the shotgun and pressed the end of the barrel against her chest as she faced me.  I hesitated as time seemed to slow way down, and she reached out to me and said, “Joe don’t. You’ve never been mean to me.” Maybe there was too much doubt in my mind. Maybe I had one of those brief lucid moments that sometimes happen when one is in the midst of psychosis. Whatever the reason, I pointed the gun away from my grandmother and carefully released the hammer uncocking the weapon without firing it. I unloaded the gun and we went downstairs, I put the gun away and we waited for my uncle to come home.

That night they took newly 17 year old me to Middletown State Hospital where they began treating me as well as they could in 1964. I responded well to treatment and was released after about two and an half months in pretty good shape. There would be more episodes and more incarcerations, but partly because of this early intervention and fairly long stay in an asylum, I have gone on to live a fairly normal and successful life.

The galling thing is that in Colorado today in order to get into our state mental institution and stay for the needed two and a half months, I would have had to pull the trigger. Short of that there would be no room in the asylum for me.

How can we expect to ever get on top of the competency hearing situation when people often don’t get the psychiatric care they need before they become involved with the criminal justice system? Without proper care, almost everyone with a serious mental illness will sooner or later.

Could that situation exist in a healthy society? Because we have so ignored serious mental illness there have been and continue to be too many totally preventable tragedies, lives needlessly wasted, and people experiencing a quality of life much worse than what is possible.

A sports team or any team is only as good as its weakest link. A society is only as healthy as its sickest members.






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