Our boys grew apart as they entered their teens, and the family moved to a nearby town to be closer to work. A few years later the parents split up. We stayed on good terms with both and ran into them once in a blue moon, but lost track of the boys. We didn’t know that the younger son, an awkward, uncommunicative kid, painfully shy around adults, had turned into a handsome, poised, articulate young man well along the path to establishing himself in a good career. We didn’t know that his older brother, a pudgy, smiley, round-faced boy, had turned into a male-model-handsome fellow who was having trouble finding a place in life. Nor did we know that he suffered from clinical depression. We didn’t know these things until we attended the older son’s memorial service recently. Overwhelmed by his problems, he had committed suicide.
We knew that the people down the street, whom we did not know well, had financial problems; people talk. We didn’t know about his medical problems. I didn’t know how serious it was until I saw the police in the woods behind his house. It was when I walked down to find out what was going on that I saw his body lying in the brush. A little later, a policeman left with the rifle he had used to kill himself.
These recent incidents, which literally struck close to home, along with the history in both my own and my wife’s families, and the recent school shooting in Florida, have convinced me beyond argument that this nation has lost its way in the treatment of mental illness. Consider: Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States and has steadily increased in frequency since 1999, after falling steadily for many decades prior to that. That this could be the case in a still-Christian nation where suicide is considered the sin of self-murder, an affluent nation where the people have never been better off, never healthier, and never happier (if surveys are to be believed), is beyond comprehension. (It bears mentioning that suicide is also considered a grave sin in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.) Something — or perhaps many things — has gone terribly wrong.
A business trip to San Francisco a few years ago was an eye-opener. A famously tolerant city, San Francisco tolerates a large homeless population. They haunt the city center during the daytime, sometimes begging, more often just wandering aimlessly and unsteadily, lost inside their own shattered minds. Within a block or two of the busier streets they are everywhere, on sidewalk grates, in doorways and garages, standing or sitting in small knots, or passed out, unattended and unremarked. In Union Square, at the very heart of the city, surrounded by every expression of wealth known to modern man, I vividly remember walking around a dirty brown lump lying motionless on the sidewalk, ignored by police and everyone else. Like everyone else, I passed on by. I can’t tell you if he was dead or alive.
Something has gone terribly wrong.
It’s incomprehensible. If these broken people had a communicable disease like typhoid or tuberculosis, mandatory treatment would not only be uncontroversial, it would be required by law. Granted, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are not communicable, but the devastation to the victim and to all those around him is undeniable and every bit as bad. And, as we know only too well, mental illness is a large factor in many violent incidents. Not long ago, this newspaper reported the case of a schizophrenic woman in Carter County who killed her father during a delusional episode. After a lifetime of ineffective and inadequate treatment, the increasingly desperate pleas of her family for help that did not come, and the murder of a loving man trying to do the right thing for his daughter, she will spend the rest of her shattered life in a mental hospital/prison.
Something has gone terribly wrong.
It is time to fundamentally reconsider our attitudes and approaches to mental illness. A series of court decisions concerning the civil rights of the mentally ill in the 1960s and ’70s, however well-intentioned, has proven tragically wrong-headed. They need to be legislatively reworked. The courts, police, public health officials and, especially, families, need enhanced authority to require prompt mandatory treatment, including confinement in a mental hospital and medication, by force if necessary. The states, after decades of hand-wringing, budget cutting and convenient excuse-making, must resume the responsibility for caring for these people who are clearly incapable of caring for themselves, whose care is beyond the resources of all but the wealthiest families, and whose neglect is an unconscionable embarrassment to a wealthy and supposedly-compassionate nation.
This problem is not going to get better on its own, it’s not going to go away, and it’s a continuing tragedy that we must, in good conscience, do what we can to address. In God’s name, what are we waiting for?
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect those of the Johnson City Press.