There is a new discussion of violence in America and a lack of mental health resources as a result of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy. We wring our hands and say “something must be done” when a young man can unrepentantly open fire on 20 innocent, precious elementary school children, murdering them along with six school personnel and his mother. I have a suggestion from my experience in talking with some of the leaders of grassroots mental health organizations. Let me give you the real picture of mental illness.
Michael was yelling and violent and had to be escorted into the mental hospital by policemen. On the intake form, the question was asked of his mother, Liza, “What are your expectations for treatment?” His mother wrote “I need help. … This problem is too big for me to handle on my own” (Huffington Post).
I can’t count how many times I have heard this statement. Here’s how it goes: “My son/daughter is mentally ill and refuses to take their medication. They have nowhere to stay except with us. They are disrupting the household — my marriage, the safety and stability of their younger siblings, and there can be no peace. I love them but don’t know where to put them, out of my house, into care, where they can get help.”
Let me make clear here that not every mentally ill person has the capability of violence. Most mentally ill people are not violent. Also, not every mass murderer has a mental illness. Most mentally ill people are simply regular people with an unfortunate chemical brain deficiency that needs correction — just like hypothyroidism or juvenile diabetes needs treatment.
During the 1970s, there was a movement to close mental institutions, and there was a mass exodus of mentally ill people back into normal society. Closing these institutions had some negative consequences. The parents of mentally ill children cry out every day, “Where can my child go to heal? What if he doesn’t get better? Where will he stay? What will happen to my child after I’m gone? Who will take care of him?”
In our day, the number of beds in the mental hospitals has decreased greatly. There are precious few residential treatment centers and barely any mental institutions. The solution is not jail or the streets where many mentally ill people end up. Going back to their parents’ houses is often not a good solution either. Parents and relatives do not have the knowledge of trained medical professionals.
The suffering, we don’t hear. It is silent, ignored and underground due to the stigma associated with mental illness. We don’t realize there’s a problem until something tragic like Sandy Hook happens. Longer-term care solutions are utterly essential but budget cuts have made finding help worse.
Here’s my suggestion: build and invest in nonprofit “mental recovery centers.” These centers would be nonprofit and would be able to get grants and private funding. Wouldn’t you contribute to help alleviate the suffering of fellow Americans and improve the welfare of our nation?
With our national economy and budget already under great strain, we cannot assume or expect that the government will be able to pull the full weight of creating longer-term solutions. That’s why a nonprofit structure is so important.
It takes time for a mentally ill person who has endured so much suffering to heal. A place to heal with access to a good psychiatrist, a good psychologist and a spiritual counselor is vital. The mind needs the medications, the heart needs emotional healing, and the soul needs restoration.
There is so much hope for healing with today’s newer medications. The greatest barrier to healing is convincing the mentally ill person to take the medication. They often refuse due to unpleasant side effects, stigma, or agnosognosia — the lack of ability to recognize you are sick.
It’s time for us, as compassionate people, to alleviate the suffering of the mentally ill. It’s also in our interest to stop any damage mentally ill people can do to themselves, family, or society as well. A life that has potential to be fruitful, should be fruitful. Jail is not a solution. It is an inexcusable evasion of the problem when there’s so much hope for recovery. Additional time and a place to heal could lead to an unfathomable number of people finding victory over their illness.
Most importantly, help a mentally ill person get to a psychiatrist. They need to rely on your help when they can’t see that they need help. Beyond this initial step, it is up to us, America, to provide them a place to recover. Longer-term care is the answer to the problem.
Anne E. Rood is a resident of east Cobb. She serves on three boards in the community, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Cobb County.