[Editor's Note: This post was originally published on the ChangeEngine Blog by ChangingMedia]
Since “mental health” seems to be so much in the news due to the Newtown massacre, I thought I’d share a little insight on the history of how our country has dealt with mental illness.
Back in the day, people deemed to have a mental illness were left to be taken care of by family memberes. Those who didn’t have family were taken far away and stashed in institutions – rather like being quarantined. With industrialization and urbanization, families were no longer able to watch over those suffering full-time and the growth of mental asylums increased. Unlike general hospitals, which have been privatized and commercialized, mental health facilities have usually been left to the state. Also unlike hospitals, which have generally always increased in number, mental health facilities have generally increased in size since it was preferred that they stay on the outskirts of town.
At first, mental hospitals were filled with elders suffering from dementia. With the advent of nursing homes, mental health care became completely segregated. Indeed, until the popularization of psychiatry by Sigmund Freud’s visit to America in 1909, mental illness was never seen as something that could be treated or cured, but only managed. Even today there really aren’t cures for most mental illnesses – usually just sedatives and symptom depressors. Paul Starr, an expert in medical history, describes how these medications have allowed patients to be “more safely ignored” instead of treated.
The U.S. government has made only halting efforts to address mental illness over the years. When the National Institute of Health was founded in the late 1930’s a part of its budget was devoted to mental health research. And in the early 1960’s President John F. Kennedy made a push to create community health centers – a pilot program intended to link federal and community services for the mentally ill, but one that had little follow-through.
Looking back on this checkered history, it makes sense why so many would blame gun violence on those in “loony bins” even though only about three to five percent of people with mental illness actually commit violent crimes. We’ve mainly treated mental health in our country as a nuisance with shoddy institutions and stopgap remedies, never investing the time and money to develop better treatment for illnesses such as depression that plague about one in ten adults.
In my opinion, putting people in a database who have been labeled as being harmful to others is not going to do a darn thing. This proposal stems from a fundamental confusion – psych patients are not criminals. As an EMT in Chicago, I encountered many psychiatric patients and visited many psychiatric wards and institutions. Though we rarely give lobotomies any more, I found that mental health institutions are still eerily similar to the depiction in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Usually, when someone was labeled “harmful to others,” it was a patient who had become so angry at their environment and the way they were being treated that they lashed out with threats to hurt others. If any of us were cooped up in a place that resembled a jail, stripped of freedom and control over our own lives, the desire to hurt someone would probably not seem so insane.
If there’s any benefit to the current media circus over mental illness, it’s that a national discussion on mental health may help make people more aware that there are problems with how our country treats and views mental illness. And then maybe, just maybe, we can stop stigmatizing those who suffer and start to truly help them.