Recently in the news there has been a lot of discussion about violence and mental illness as if the two were inexorably linked. This perceived linkage is heightened by tragedies such as the shootings at Virginia Tech and recently in Tucson. Both cases were clearly committed by people with serious mental disorders. In spite of the horrors of these events, they pale when compared to the 30,000 to 40,000 murders in this country each year as part of crimes, gangs and domestic violence.
So, what are we to believe about the mentally ill among us? Most of the mentally ill who live and work along side you, do so in shamed silence because of the stigma that would be attached to them if their “truth” were to be known.
In the mid-1960s I entered the mental health system as a patient in a now non-existent state hospital. At that time, there were over 5,000 state hospital beds in Kansas. Today, that figure hovers around 300 beds.
In the 1980s and ‘90s the trend became “deinstitutionalization” — close down as many state hospitals as possible and then, with the money “saved,” provide intensive outpatient care at local mental health centers. In addition, a number of community hospitals opened or expanded in-patient mental health units to meet short-term crisis needs.
In the mid-1980s, at the height of my worst mental health crisis, I became a patient at the mental health unit at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. This unit provided a wide array of social and psychiatric services in order to stabilize and return people to the community as functioning, contributing citizens.
This particular hospitalization lasted 40 days. A caring psychiatrist and wonderful support staff not only, literally, saved my life, but also helped me return to my job duties teaching your children in the public schools. Prior to that, I had been the first full-time director of the Ballard Center in the 1960s and, in the late 1970s, I was executive director of the Lawrence Housing Authority, where I secured the first Section 8 housing program for Lawrence. I tell you this story to illustrate that the mentally ill can be a contributing part of our community.
None of this is possible for a person with a serious mental illness in Lawrence today. LMH has no mental health unit. State hospital beds are at a premium. If you are committed to a state hospital you are handcuffed and shackled by the local sheriff’s department and transported to the state facility. There need be no “crime” involved for such a scenario to occur, only the “crime” of needing hospitalization for a mental illness.
If you have good insurance, you may find much more pleasant surroundings in a public-private hospital in Topeka or Kansas City — if a bed is available. But don’t need 40 days of care, as I did; that’s no longer an option due to tight restrictions now in place, thanks to the insurance lobby.
Remember that “saved” money that was supposed to go from reduced state hospitals to local mental health centers? With the new cuts proposed by the state, our local Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center will have suffered approximately $1.5 million in cuts in the past several years.
So Lawrence now has access to a grossly underfunded mental health center, no local hospital mental health unit, and state and larger city hospital mental health unit beds greatly reduced in number.
Today, our “mental health system” is increasingly transferred to the criminal justice system. Three hundred thousand people with major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are in U.S. jails or prisons. Today, another one-half million people with such illnesses are on probation. Today, the Los Angeles County Jail is considered to be the largest mental health care facility in America.
I believe the good people of Lawrence will be appalled by this outrageous treatment of our community’s mentally ill. I ask you to join me in starting to establish the beginning of a more humane treatment of the mentally ill by insisting on a mental health unit at LMH and a full restoration of all funds lost by the Bert Nash center. Together we can, and must, do this and more.