If Google were truly the revealing search engine we think it is, I should be able to download the entirety of our state’s mental health system simply by entering a single keyword: Broken.
Sean Robinson’s exhaustive article (Trib 3/10) reveals a system plagued by slipshod accountability and error-prone service. This comes as no surprise for the people who operate within this cyclical business, a list which includes firefighters and cops, ER docs and nurses, along with the mental health professionals who hold the keys to long term treatment.
Robinson delved into the minutiae of his topic in typical fashion, and the results only confirm that our current process for treating our mentally ill is woefully inadequate. “Treat ‘em and street ‘em” is the operative phrase.
The story of two very different individuals may help illustrate my point.
First there’s Jane, a young womanwho grew up in a troubled home. Because her mom was an alcoholic in an abusive relationship, Jane was used to cops showing up at her door. As time passed and Jane developed her own set of problems, she started flirting with suicide.
Jane’s flirtations with death became so routine that she knew the exact words or actions which would precipitate an involuntary committal, and an ambulance ride to the ER. Often she would call us by name, and was always polite to the medics who bandaged the gashes on her scarred wrists. When she arrived at the ER, the mental health professionals would interview her and, usually, send her home the next day.
One day Jane wasn’t satisfied with cutting her wrists up. That day her suicidal ideations (a term she must have heard a million times) leapt out of her imagination and became real. I learned of her death from one of my friends at work, and I was shocked. But I was not surprised.
Then there was Jimmy ( also not his real name). Jimmy could be a pretty scary guy when his mind made the inevitable decline into a dark landscape. Though he lived on the street and was marginally responsible for his own care, and when he missed his meds the 911 call sounded something like, ”Yea, there’s a naked guy beating the s— out of some dude with a tent pole.”
I never knew what Jimmy was like on a good day. The only time I ever saw him he was either comatose (too much medication) or else hyped up. On those latter occasions he was a real handful, to say the least, yet he always seemed to show up on the street a few days later.
I’ll admit these two examples are a small sampling. But there are many more out there like Jane and Jimmy, people cursed with either drug related mental disorders or serious mental health issues. Many of them present a danger – to the public, their families, law enforcement and, most often, to themselves – that is all too often brushed aside by a system that simply can’t handle the sheer numbers.
As a conversation starter, Robinson’s article is a worthy description of our state’s flawed, underfunded and inadequate mental health system. We need to be willing to admit that there are many people out there who can’t make it on their own, whose demons are simply too hard to overcome alone.
And if we don’t do something to keep them safe, the demons that race around inside their heads may one day come looking for us.