Is the system crazy?


I recently began reading a book by Pete Earley called Crazy A father’s search though America’s mental health madness. The catalyst for the book was the mental breakdown of his son Mike.  Mike, who had been a college student in Brooklyn nearing graduation, began acting very strangely, a fact which made one of his friends contact Pete. The message was: your son needs help. But his efforts to assist Mike were complicated by a number of factors: as an adult, Mike had the legal right to reject treatment. He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder but resisted taking medication, calling it poison. Even when Pete drove his son to the hospital, doctors often refused to admit him, repeating a mantra about Mike not posing a risk to himself or to others.

Shortly after one failed attempt to get treatment, Mike ran away, broke into a neighbor’s house and caused a significant amount of damage to the house while taking a bubble bath. He was arrested and released without bail. When the neighbors discovered what had happened, they were furious and demanded that Mike be charged with two felonies. If convicted, he would have been lost many rights, including being barred from  entering the profession he had been preparing to enter before his break from reality. Pete dug in his heals and refused allow his son to be labeled by something over which he had no control: his brain disease.

Eventually, Mike was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and began cooperating with treatment. He even recovered well enough to begin returning to work. Unfortunately he now faced 2 different types of stigma: as a person convicted of a crime and as a person receiving mental health treatment.

This experience made Pete want to research the mental health system, especially the criminalization of mental health. The laws prevented him from forcing his son to get help but then were ready to lock him up if he committed a crime, even if he could not understand the consequences of his actions.

Pete learned about the process of declaring that a mentally delusional person was ready and able to stand trial. The method involved testing and retesting people on a series of 10 questions about the legal process: do you know what the judge does, what is the prosecutor’s role and what does the juror do. None of these questions have any relevance in determining sanity.The most disheartening thing that Earley found was the way  that reports and exposes of the barbaric treatment in jails failed to result in changes in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

All of this troubles me because I am wondering whether Milwaukee will provide sufficient safeguards in the downsizing of the Milwaukee Mental Health Complex. It is very likely that the Milwaukee County jail is the largest treatment provider for persons with mental illness. And we are still having problems finding housing for some of the people in the housing . Will the jail become their next residence? If so, that would be crazy.

 

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