People in the Shadows

August 5, 2015 § 9 Comments

Ghandi is often quoted as having said that “A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Hubert Humphrey said, “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

It’s fashionable today to emphasize personal responsibility over governmental (and taxpayer) responsibility when it comes to the poor, the needy, the elderly, and even children. Government keeps looking for ways to stint on spending on people at the margins.

What those people have in common is that they are our weakest members, and arguably the weakest among them, “in the shadows of life,” are our mentally ill.

If it is true that we are to be measured by how we treat the mentally ill among us, and the moral test of our government is how we treat our mentally ill, then, I must tell you, we fail to measure up, and we fail the moral test.

Our mental heath system in Mississippi is not just broken, it is broke. It is underfunded and not up to the task.

It happens all too often that a chancellor will order a person to be committed to a state hospital one day, only for that same person to be released days or at most a couple of weeks later. The hospital does not have the resources for long-term care. Instead, the patient is admitted, then given enough medication to alleviate the symptoms, resulting in a finding that the patient is no longer a danger to himself and others, and thereby resulting in his release back into the general public. Once back on the street the person stops taking his medication and soon lapses again into being a true danger to himself and others, requiring yet another commitment proceeding, usually at the expense of the family.

Many of the unkempt, confused people you see wandering the streets are mentally ill. They are the castaways who, due to mental illness, have exhausted the support, financial resources, and patience of families and friends, leaving them nowhere to go but the streets. Mental illness impairs judgment and insight. It impairs one’s ability to take care of oneself.

More significantly, the mentally ill can be dangerous. Paranoid schizophrenics can be extremely dangerous, and even murderous. Ask the folks in Lafayette, Louisiana, whether the indisputably mad man who gunned down two innocent women in a cinema was not dangerous.

I once represented parents who had committed their paranoid-schizophrenic son to the state hospital system nearly a dozen times. He threatened to kill them, other family members, and neighbors whenever he was off of his medication. Once in the hospital, with his medication regulated, the voices in his head became more benign, and he calmed down. Then he was released, stopped taking his medication, and the demons soon returned from where the medications had banished them, more furious than ever. The parents feared for their lives, and all our system could offer them was a revolving door. Perhaps a greater level of protection would have been available if the young man actually killed or seriously maimed someone.

Let me be clear that I am not trying to stigmatize or demonize the mentally ill. Not all are dangerous. But we do have to recognize that some are, and that those do pose a threat to public safety.

It is the responsibility of the state to protect the safety of the citizenry, and to provide adequate systems for taking care of those who are so impaired that they can not care for themselves. Yet, we do not do either in Mississippi when it comes to the mentally ill.

The mentally ill have no PAC or voting bloc, as far as I know. They are not invited to, much less welcome at, $500-a-plate political fundraising dinners. We live in a pay-to-play political world, where political clout gets results. The mentally ill have no political clout, and it shows in how we prioritize their needs in our state budget.

Years ago, the standard treatment for such undesirables was to buy them a bus ticket to somewhere far away. Nowadays, we don’t buy the ticket; we simply turn them out onto the street with the hope that they will go somewhere else and be someone else’s problem.

It does not have to be this way. We can fund our mental health system at a level where it can provide an acceptable level of service. It’s the 21st century, after all. We should be at that point.

Or, we can buy bus tickets.

[This post was written before the 60 Minutes piece on this subject was aired last Sunday.]

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