A short version of this appeared in the Seattle Times as a letter to the editor today.
Cody Lee Miller, the man who climbed a giant sequoia tree in downtown Seattle on March 22nd, was formally indicted Monday, April 11th. As if Twitter wasn’t alive enough with ignorant mockery and cheap jokes at his expense during the 25-hour period he remained in the tree, the justice system once again revealed itself to be a farce. He appeared in shackles, at wrists and ankles, before a judge – his unruly hair and clear need of psychiatric care seemingly of no consequence – April 11th for his arraignment. The judge’s order mandated he stay away from the tree but that’s only relevant if he can make the $50,000 bail placed on him.
Of course, this is a classic illustration of our national approach to mental illness: warehouse those who suffer from it in the prison system, which is increasingly private and for profit. “Treating” by beating, literally or figuratively. One evidences “recovery” by his or her ability to comply with orders from out-of-touch officials. So in Miller’s case, if he can ever afford his freedom again, he just needs to stay away from a tree. No mention of support or help for him, no consideration of why Miller may have done $8,000 of damage to the tree in the first place, no addressing any of Miller’s obvious and urgent physical and psychological needs.
But it’s not difficult to see where this what should be arresting and chilling lack of concern for another human being comes from. I am a card-carrying tree-hugger; someone’s got to comfort what’s left of the forests. But in a society where more concern is expressed for a tree than a human, where people took to Twitter in roiling flocks to see who could come up with the best pun or joke about Cody, it isn’t hard for me to see how people’s minds and spirits get broken. People suffering from mental illness have the reputation of being paranoid, of thinking the world is out to get them or has turned its back on them; it’s unclear to me from this situation how these fears are wrong. Rather than examining the various ways we are creating belonging for each person, rather than considering how well we as families and communities are doing in connecting people with opportunities to use their gifts and passions in service of us all, we post mocking memes about one of our community’s most vulnerable. We have a good laugh “with” others – in the privacy and comfort of our individual homes – and we move on. We clap when a judge decrees “no unwanted contact” – a truly nonsensical notion when it comes to a tree – and a five-figure bail is set on a deeply distressed young man as if being convicted of “malicious mischief” and assault are the beginning, middle and end of the story.
Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), the only licensed psychologist in Congress, has proposed a bill (H.R. 2646) that supposedly makes it easier for family members like Cody’s mother to get their loved ones help. Whether or not this bill in reality caters more toward Big Pharma than the actual needs of people in psychological distress (looking at the financial supporters of this bill, one is suspicious) won’t change the fact that, as a culture, we are beyond stigmatizing our most vulnerable into silence. We have become so detached that our first instinct upon hearing about distress like Cody Miller’s is to use the anonymity of the Internet to ridicule him for a few minutes before moving on without a second thought. It is both the sliver of Cody’s story I know from the news that I can’t get off my mind and the hideously callous response to it. It’s not that we’re unwilling to talk about mental illness, it’s that we, as a culture, don’t know how to support or show compassion to those who are suffering. And that isn’t something any law, any court order, and certainly not any amount of bail money is going to give us.