Last week I met a fellow I’ll call Mike: a deeply tanned, fit, bright individual in his 40s. Mike has traveled all over the world and read extensively on subjects that interest him, and on those subjects he is fluent, even eloquent. He also sleeps under a bridge, can’t maintain long-term relationships, and periodically threatens suicide. If professionally evaluated, Mike would probably be diagnosed with some form of mental illness—like Aaron Alexis, who shot up the Washington Navy Yard in September, or Miriam Carey, who rammed her car into a White House barrier last week and was shot dead by Capitol police.
Mike does not appear to be violent and is unlikely to do harm to anyone except himself. But he and these high-profile cases are symptomatic of a problem demanding more attention. Over the last few months, several news outlets have reported that when the mentally ill are “housed” at all, they’re likely to be housed in jails and prisons. The “largest institution for the mentally ill in Illinois” is the Cook County Jail—second in the nation only to the New York City jail. Across the United States, prisons have become default “mental hospitals” for those who have disconnected themselves from society or whose families can’t afford psychiatric care.
Mental illness has a spotted history in the United States. Prison reform was one of the earliest social crusades of the 19th century, largely concerned with getting obviously disturbed men and women out of incarceration and into what passed for treatment at the time. But given the medical understanding of the time, public mental hospitals weren’t much of an improvement over prisons, and stereotypes perpetuated by Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were uncomfortably close to fact.
A romantic view of the mentally ill as social rebels—or loveable eccentrics, like Jimmy Stewart in Harvey—contributed in the 1970s to a push for granting them autonomy. State hospitals emptied—and the streets filled. Homelessness increased not so much because of people out of work as people out from under the supervision they needed to function. Public policy shifted to “supporting mental health” rather than “treating mental illness” and the problem was sloppily swept under the rug.
It may now be creeping out. U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., founder of the GOP Doctor Caucus, has proposed a reform agenda for addressing mental illness. Many of his proposals are just common sense, such as reserving more hospital beds for dangerously ill patients and increasing police training and research. Others involve removing government roadblocks, such as confidentiality laws that refuse family access to medical records, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which often impedes efforts to get the seriously ill the help they need.
The best help is usually the closest to home. This is something the church should be praying about. Are there community organizations that need volunteers? Local mentoring programs? Christian nursing students who might want to specialize in mental illness? The problem isn’t hopeless as long as it’s accurately defined and honestly addressed.