Two weeks ago now (sorry about that), I mentioned that a friend who read my op-ed in Real Change’s May 27th issue had asked some good follow-up questions, specifically what my suggestions for better legislation/solutions were and if there are other states or countries that are doing a better job. I’ll start with the big picture: we lose about one million people worldwide to suicide a year; 450 million are dealing with experiences commonly understood as mental illness; ‘neuropsychiatric disorders’ accounted for the largest percentage of “disability adjusted life years” – above AIDS and injuries – in 2001, the last time they did such a study, and that number has only grown since; and one in four families contain a member dealing with a ‘mental illness.’
My point is that, though America in general is a particularly bad place to be ‘mentally ill,’ we as a world are struggling to respond to this burgeoning epidemic. People with lived experience of mental-health challenges are at a much greater risk for discrimination and stigma than any other single grouping of humans, especially in the US, which is why America’s biggest mental hospital is a jail. Those that are not collected out of society “for public safety” or whatever it is we’re using to justify being the biggest incarcerator in the world these days are left to rely mostly on their families for care.
I’m going to be honest: I have to fight pretty hard to ward off world weariness and despair at the state of things. I also don’t know what we can do in the face of increasingly invasive governmental incursion into the lives of every citizen in this country (40,000 laws were passed in January of 2012 alone, which, really, is just out of control). I’m angry at the lack of actually helpful options the state and the psychiatric/psychology community are currently providing in any country, but specifically the US, to those experiencing acute mental or emotional distress. I’m sick of ignorance and stigma being the reason why there’s so few spaces for real healing. But, here are a few things I think we need:
1) Peer-support networks, especially but not only as alternatives to calling the police. I’ve at this point heard more stories than I care to count about how calling the police in attempt to deal with a suicidal person has resulted in the violent death of said person, rather than anything like appropriate responsiveness (and no, I really don’t mean empathy here) and efforts to save that person’s life. I’m tired of the “one bad apple” argument; we need alternatives to calling the military, I mean, police in general, but specifically for mental health events. Peer support – that is, groups, contact lists, phone/email trees, etc. of people with lived experience – can be one of these alternatives. And actually, I’m endeavoring to start one – a local chapter of a national, radical mental-health organization – but more on that forthcoming.
2) A new ethic of compassion. We all know that when someone in your family receives a cancer diagnosis, people run to fill their fridge with food, provide childcare, and generally pitch in how they can. Between my husband and I, we have one parent who has not had cancer and, without fail, the community has stepped up each time. But when you get diagnosed with depression, people run the other way. I’m not trying to draw undue comparisons between the actual disease of cancer and ‘mental illness’ (those that do, I think, often end up going too far in ways that damage those experiencing what is commonly called ‘mental illness’); but, for those of us called to love (the least, the last and the lost), there’s no excuse for a depressed person’s fridge to be empty. It can be a pain in the neck to talk to people who are depressed or anxious; it can be flat-out, full-stop terrifying to be the one called when your friend is on a ledge, but I don’t know of a definition of love that excludes inconvenience. And our psych wards, our outpatient programs and, ahem, our prisons, aren’t cutting it. We need to stop abdicating friendship by outsourcing difficult conversations and emotional distress to only drugs and “trained professionals,” who more often than not leave “the patient” feeling more alienated and less human than before. I’m not saying that there is never a place for either of those things (that’s a completely separate topic for a different day). This is not advice about treatment; this is a plea for compassion whether you have lived experience or not. Don’t put the burden on those already caving in on themselves; stay in touch and reach out as a community and as you’re able.
3) Less law, more love. We’re not going legislate our way out of the problem – either of the mental-health pandemic or overly powerful and proportionately undertrained police that uses lethal force as first-line SOP. I get that Joel Reuter, the 28-year-old man murdered by the police in Washington State during what his parents allege was a psychotic episode, may be alive today if he had received more help. But really, until we make our mental hospitals places that the majority of patients don’t leave feeling brutalized and dehumanized from, Joel’s Law needs to be repealed. If what Joel needed was treatment, there is absolutely no guarantee that he would have gotten it in a psych ward. Sure, he would have been “alive,” but the eponymous law assumes that committing mentally ill people will actually help them get better. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t actually care about quality of life; so long as they’re off the streets and breathing, “getting well” is simply out of the scope of this law.
And that’s the problem with in general. If you can’t adequately provide for the well being of humans, which I think we can all agree on as being far more than just physically alive, then you have no business passing a law that overburdens a broken system by allowing possibly abusive family more of a say in the life of someone who is clearly already struggling. Grassroots organizing efforts have repealed laws before, but it requires sustained, dogged effort by people who care. Lifting your voice on behalf of those that are being silenced by the system can and does make a difference – for example, charges against a couple who continued feeding homeless folks in Daytona Beach after the city’s ban against such activities were dropped after persistent public outrage – but the key is persistent. The point is that speaking up, even in this increasingly money-driven, indifferent-to-actual-humans-needs political atmosphere, does still have the power to change things. Let us not silence ourselves, and by proxy, those that need us, by the belief that it doesn’t.