The crisis in mental health care is rapidly becoming a featured topic of mainstream journalism.
CBS News has commendably chosen to spotlight this subject as the launch-point of its new experiment in long(er)-form video journalism, making use of its online digital resources. To quote from the network’s announcement: “
CBS Evening News Uncharted: State of Mind” is a new five-part digital series airing in May with new episodes released every Wednesday. The series will examine the state of mental health care in America in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. More than 43 million Americans suffer from mental illness.”
The first episode aired last night, and I repost it here. I was among the contributors, along with Congressman Tim Murphy, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and Dr. Glenda Wrenn, the psychiatrist and the director of behavioral health for the Satcher Health Leadership Institute.
Not surprisingly, the most compelling figure in this episode is an embattled mother: Rocky Schwartz, whose two sons are afflicted with chronic mental illness. (The National Alliance on Mental Illness has estimated that 60 percent of Americans suffering from mental illness don’t receive the care they need.)
Battles with un-cooperative health insurance companies have cost Ms. Schwartz and her husband more than $300,000, draining their retirement, college savings, home equity loans, and other personal savings.
The series was assembled by a young production team headed by the gifted and determined associate producer Roman Feeser. I am honored to have been a part of the first and some of the succeeding installments in this bellwether experiment in immersive journalism.
This horrific story, originally reported by the excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and picked up by Slate a couple days ago, is yet another demonstration of my assertion in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE that “too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Terrill Thomas’s death by slow, deliberate, guard-induced dehydration while in solitary confinement at a Milwaukee County jail is an abomination, and a part of a larger national abomination. Our society must demand an end to solitary confinement!
Rindfleisch, who was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff, wrote the hateful words in a 2010 email uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. To her campaign colleagues, she mocked and dismissed the depredations of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, where a woman being treated for bipolar disorder died of starvation. Where workers sexually assaulted and impregnated patients.
“The fact was ungodly abuses happened at the Milwaukee County Hospital that were medieval in nature,” Powers says. “The rape of patients, starvation, naked patients walking around, physical abuse—there it is, in our time. It’s not something you have to look in an encyclopedia to find.”
Powers is an award-winning writer with criticism, narrative nonfiction, and biography to his credit. He is the author of Mark Twain: A Life and coauthor of the No. 1 New York Timesbestseller Flags of Our Fathers, which was adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood. He and his wife, Honoree Fleming, a pioneering biochemist, are the parents of two sons, Dean and Kevin, who were diagnosed with schizophrenia in young adulthood.
“This is the book I promised myself I would never write,” Powers writes in No One Cares About Crazy People. “And promised my wife as well. I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”
No One Cares About Crazy People is a treatise on the state of mental health care in America today—how we arrived at the disgust, hostility, and ignorance embodied by Rindfleisch and her ilk. It’s also the emotional story of the Powers family’s struggle with the fearsome scourge of schizophrenia.
“I did not want to commodify my sons,” Powers says of his hesitation to include his family’s struggles in the book—a decision that came at the behest of his literary agent, encouraged by his editors at Hachette. “I didn’t want to turn them into a profit center, even unconsciously. I didn’t want this to be a ‘poor daddy’ book. There are so many…unworthy motives you could [have] for writing a book like this.”
Powers spent a decade researching nosology, political history, and structures of care and governance of schizophrenia (i.e., how the police and the courts treat the afflicted). In the book, he traces mental health care’s shocking history: from “Bedlam” asylum in London, the scene of centuries’ worth of shocking abuses, through American deinstitutionalization; the deleterious denial enacted by popular figures like Dr. Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness and L. Ron Hubbard colleague; the noble mental health care initiatives of Presidents Truman and Kennedy and mass defunding by President Reagan; and the consequences for those living with the disease today, bumping up against untrained police, ignorant lawmakers, and fearful neighbors.
“Schizophrenia is different from depression, it’s different from hysteria, it’s different from any kind of bad mood or grudges or the kinds of things we all encounter,” Powers says. “It has a genetic component and it flows through families—probably, almost certainly, has flowed through mine, although no one in my family was ever diagnosed…. It must be understood as different, and it requires different solutions than I think we traditionally apply.”
Forced to bear witness to the inadequacies of our current system, Powers has issued a clarion call to arms: to do better by those with mental illness, their loved ones, and communities; to move toward ameliorative policies that consider their health, well-being, and civil liberties. In short, that we start to care about “crazy people.”
“I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” Powers writes. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene. Only if this happens, and keeps happening until it needs happen no more, can we dare to hope that Dean and Kevin and all their brothers and sisters in psychotic suffering are redeemed; that they have not suffered entirely in vain.”
In my previous post, I speculated on the dangers of the GOP congress’s rollback of President Obama’s strictures on permitting the sale of firearms to serious mentally ill people. Here is an example of what can go wrong: A warning, a gun sale and tragic consequences
Yesterday he vetoed a bill that would have limited the use of solitary confinement. (As one of the most demonstrably mind-destroying forms of punishment available, it should be banned altogether, everywhere.) Now he is restricting funds for the most abject members of society, the seriously mentally ill. This points not only to Christie’s particular brand of heartlessness, but also to the destructive myopia of too many public officials about the hellscape inhabited by “crazy people.”
In the late 1990s I contributed commentaries to Vermont Public Radio. I often drew upon Dean and Kevin for subject-matter. This piece, broadcast in 1997, is one of my favorites, and captures my younger son in all his instinctual goodness and decency.
Ron Powers/VPR Commentary
Kevin and the Perfect Playboy Woman
Promo: This is Ron Powers. What’s the best defense against sleazy junk mail? Having a smart kid helps. Stay tuned for a few minutes and I’ll tell you what I mean.
Announcer’s intro: Researchers in Texas have discovered a new use for junk mail: it makes an excellent garden fertilizer. Commentator Ron Powers is not surprised.
Commentary: I was scooping out the daily tonnage of junk mail with a backhoe the other day—when I spotted an envelope that was different from all the rest. It was festooned with an oddly familiar logo; a pair of bunny-ears. It was addressed to my son Kevin. And then I spotted the legend stamped in the upper right-hand corner:
BULK RATE U.S. POSTAGE PAID BY PLAYBOY
Well, I opened it. Call me a nuidge. Inside were—guess what?–glossy photographs of young women with complicated hair, plunging décolletage and lip-gloss. But here was the zinger: a personal message for my kid: because of his, quote, “proven good taste,” he was being invited to represent, quote, “The Sophisticated Male of the Nineties” and help Playboy Magazine construct—I quote again—“The Perfect Woman.”
“You read it right!” the copy burbled. “From the many intelligent men in and around your state, we have selected YOU for our annual Perfect Woman Poll.” The potential rewards included a vacation for two in the Bahamas; round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in North America and lots of cash.
The next page listed the questions that Kevin would have to answer. The categories included “Vital Statistics” (the Perfect Woman’s measurements at bust, waist and hips); “Body Parts” (length and shape of legs, firmness of stomach, whether she should have an “innie” or an “outie”) and “Fashion Statements” (whether she should mostly wear bikinis, high heels, negligees, tattoos, handcuffs, or “nothing.”
Now, here’s what you have to understand about Kevin. He still carries the cat to bed with him. His passions include Monopoly, bagels with cream cheese, playing guitar and trying to make contact with Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls. Are we talking Sophisticated Male, or what?
How Playboy found Kevin was not hard to figure out. A few months ago his older brother took part in a magazine subscription drive for the high school. The family all chipped in. Kevin’s choices were Snowboarding and Sports Illustrated. This got his name into the computerized data system of subscription lists, which magazines buy and sell to one another. Playboy was only a matter of time.
When Kevin got home from after-school ice skating, I asked him if he had ever thought what the Perfect Woman might be like.
He was still wearing an orange knit cap pulled down to his eyes, and his cheeks were scarlet from the cold. He gave me his sidelong, you’re-tricking-me look.
“Like a grown-up?” he asked after a minute. I nodded. His blue eyes trailed upward in thought.
“Smart. . .” he said. He thought again.
“Pretty. . .” he added.
“Who doesn’t smoke.
“A very nice attitude.
“Who skis or snowboards and likes to play sports.” His gaze turned quizzical again. “Why do you want to know?”
I told him he had received a brochure from Playboy Magazine asking for his ideas about the Perfect Woman.
“I did?” he asked. “Where?” and then: “Why did they write to me?”
I told him the letter mentioned his “proven good taste.” Kevin tilted his head. “How do I have good taste?” he asked. “What are you talking about?”
I decided to show him. He was excited at first—the name “Playboy” was not unknown in the corridors of his school—but when I put the brochure in his hands, he looked at it for several minutes, and his mood changed.
“Those people probably smoke,” he said quietly. He sifted through the enameled images of cleavage and fishnetting and pouty lips.
And then, walking out the door of my study: “I don’t want to think about it.”
You know what? The direct mail geniuses at Playboy Magazine got it right. The kid does have proven good taste. This is Ron Powers in Middlebury.