By Olga Agafanova
Some years ago, I used to see a woman on a street corner who bore an uncanny resemblance to a former professor of mine. The two had similar physical characteristics and they were close in age: it would have been difficult to tell them apart from a distance. It is unlikely, however, that they will ever cross paths: the professor was a promising scholar, a rising star in her field; the homeless woman had the absent gaze of someone with a profound mental illness. Without intervention from some entity willing to provide long-term care, this person is likely to spend her life shuttling between psychiatric emergency rooms and homeless shelters, never becoming stable for long enough to start rebuilding her life.
Pete Earley’s Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness is a good place to start exploring the plight of the mentally ill in America. The book is not academic in its approach: Earley gives us enough historical and contextual information so that we understand why things functions so poorly but his tone is intimate and his outrage is genuine.
For example, we discover the magnitude of the jail problem as he begins to visit the Miami-Dade detention center. While the jail has an entire floor dedicated to housing psychotic prisoners, we find out that they receive little treatment except for cheap alternatives to the drugs they are prescribed. If they refuse to take the medicine, the prisoners may spend months in isolation cells, often naked (ostensibly for their own good) and raving mad. Although Early spends relatively little time discussing policy choices, we can understand exactly how the existing mental health system fails when Early shadows several men as they bounce to and from the streets and detention centers.
Early is at his most compelling when he talks about the hopes and dreams he had for his son and how he had to make adjustments to them when the scope of the son’s illness became clear. Reading the perspectives from “the other side”, that is, the views of the police officers who confront mentally ill offenders and the attorneys who passionately argue for a crazy’s person right to remain crazy was illuminating.
I find it interesting that as a society, we happily treat people with advanced dementia, even though they may claim they are feeling great, but equally delusional people with diagnoses like schizophrenia are left to struggle on their own. Both categories of illness are outside of an individual’s control and yet we draw a distinction between them in our mental health and justice systems. If we could care enough to align our laws with the science of mental illness, we might be on our way to becoming a more compassionate society where people like the homeless woman on that street corner may get another shot at life.
Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness
By Pete Earley