Friday, February 15, 2008

Mental Illness in R.I., Pt. 1

It's not mental health that I'm writing of, or of the "worried well." It's mental illness. Brains that are disordered and do not work as they should. You may be familar with the names of some of them: "major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder."

"Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning." These illnesses are rarely as easily spotted or even diagnosed as a broken leg or diabetes. They are understood even less with often little sympathy, much less empathy, for those who look relatively normal & should just be able to take care of it. The trouble is that they often can't or have good reasons not to.

Mental illness has been on my family's mind a lot lately- up close & personal. We've had to deal with a close family member who was struck all too cruely with schizophrenia, the cruelest of all mental illnesses. It robs those just entering the blossoming of adulthood with a lifelong, usually debilitating, disease.

Mental illnesses are not yet curable, but are treatable with varying degrees of sucess. The treatments are rarely simple though, and come with their own consequences to be dealt with. We've all heard about it in the news lately- the young man in Cranston who was shot by police when his mother called them believing that she was ultimately "helping" her son. The college students who have comitted mass murders while off their meds or going without needed treatments. We' even seen them- in Washington Square, wandering/living on the streets of Prov. We may even known some of them or heard about them through friends or relatives.

Beyond sad. But why does this happen? Whose fault is it? What can we do about it? Why should we even care?

"Federal costs for the care of seriously mentally ill individuals now total $41 billion yearly and are rocketing upward at a rate of $2.6 billion a year.""Schizophrenia, long considered the most chronic, debilitating and costly mental illness, now consumes a total of about $63 billion a year for direct treatment, societal and family costs." Care now?

So we're doing a lot of research into improving treatment & possible cures, right? Think again. In 2002 the Institute of Mental Health (federal) spent less than 12% of its budget on the most serious illness- schizophrenia. Yet its budget between 1988 & 2002 quadrupled to over $1.3 billion- thank you Sen. Domenici (R) & former Sen. Wellstone (D).

Putting aside funding, states make it easy for mentally ill individuals to get help, right? Au contraire, mon ami. And I can testify on this from firsthand knowledge. This statement says it all:

The "freedom" to be penniless, helpless, ill, and finally arrested, jail and criminally committed is not freedom at all- it's abandonment. The "right" to be demented, agonized and terrorized in the face of treatment which cannot, because of legal Prohibition, be applied is no right at all- it's a new form of imprisonment." (Dr. Darold Treffert).

This is a system which places roadblocks at every road. "You can't get there from here" should be the motto. Privacy and protection for the individual, at any cost, finally sacrifices the mentally ill individual to the to a functionaly non-functional system. Lawyers, providers, courts and police all have sympathy. But the reality is that we have turned out backs to the mentally and thrown them to judicial corrections system which is ill-prepared for them. Hospitals, doctors, community health centers have all failed. A system which promises housing, jobs, training, support, money, medical care, etc. to many of our most vulnerable, is a national shame and disgrace.

I don't think that I could phrase it any more succinctly than this mourning mother, "Betty Swift said when her 30-year-old son had emotional problems a few months ago in Massachusetts, she called the police for help. They took him to Massachusetts General Hospital without incident.
“I thought he could get the same help here [as he had in Mass. when police took her son to a hospital],” she said yesterday in a telephone interview. “But I was wrong.” Indeed, the Cranston police shot him.

My next article will focus on trying to get the mentally ill services when they deny it's needed- good luck!
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