Imagine you’re an investigative journalist who has written books about serial killers, prisons, casinos, blood atonements and other controversies. You’re a best-selling writer, immersed in society’s seedy underbelly when your 19-yea- old son has a psychotic break.
Plunged into an immediate and hellacious journey into the navigation of America’s mental health system, Pete Earley did the only thing he knew. He investigated and wrote about it. The result was a compelling story; his own son’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder, intermixed with the horrifying realities of the woefully limited options available to the mentally ill and their families.
In the course of his investigation, Mr. Earley learned the terrible facts of our mental health system. What he found was that well-intentioned laws intended to protect our citizens have now backfired. It’s now practically impossible for mentally ill patients – many of whom don’t even realize they are sick – to get the help that their families can see they so desperately need. These individual rights that were fought for so valiantly caused the mental health system as it was to collapse. Mental institutions closed down due to over-regulation, meaning that the sickest of patients were literally dropped off on sidewalks, homeless and without advocacy, marginalized and treated as criminals. It’s a theme that’s repeated in many of our national debates; that age old war between the rights of individuals and the well-being of our communities and families as a whole.
The author also discovered that our prison system often becomes a repository for those patients who fall through the cracks. In days gone by, those people would have been institutionalized but that solution is no longer available. Many become desperate, committing crimes just to get (sub-standard) housing and medication. Once in the justice system, where resources and staffing are not set up for such “problems”, they get trapped in a revolving door system of being treated for just long enough to become fit for trial, only to quickly become “incompetent” again while waiting for a trial date that never arrives.
Every state has this problem; none have been able to come up with a solution. It’s not politically popular and indeed, the author investigates the careers of politicians who tried, in vain, to gain support for this cause. In a nutshell it’s a career breaker. Why? It’s because there are very real concerns on both sides. Remember; women in the past were committed against their will for things like witchcraft and adultery, so precautions to prevent that from happening to “problem” children, spouses and parents need to be in place. On the other hand, balance and compromise is a necessity because of the very nature of true mental illness with most patients not realizing (until it’s too late) that they need help.
I don’t know what the answer is. Whatever your thoughts, if you work with people whether in the criminal justice system, the mental health system or in practically any capacity, this book is a must-read. Maybe if enough people learn about this problem, it will finally get the attention it deserves.