Msgr. Charles Pope has written a personal story about mental illness that I recommend. He offers that people die from mental illness every day. His sister was among them. I have nearly been counted among them multiple times, having been put behind locked doors for my own safety. Mental illness runs in my family, and so, I am not the only person in my family who has spent time behind those locked doors. As Msgr. Pope points out, not enough people are behind locked doors for their own safety because too many people believe mental hospitals are “inhumane” ways to deal with the mentally ill. In reality, it is inhumane not to confine people who are a danger to themselves or to others.
Locked doors are, unfortunately, associated with crime, as if to lock someone away for mental illness means, by attrition, that you are treating them like criminals. That perception causes horror in some when you suggest that people with severe mental illness should be locked up. This same horrified reaction sometimes comes when I mention that the doors to my kids’ schools are locked to prevent entry from the outside and that I am grateful for this security measure. Some say we should not “lock our children up as if they are criminals.” I answer that our children deserve at least the same “lock and key” security that banks have for money. Our children are infinitely more valuable than our money is, and so are people with mental illness. It is still, thankfully, a matter of common sense, that banks should secure money under lock and key. Why is it not also common sense that we should secure our children and the mentally ill under lock and key? Do we love them less than we love our money?
Having said that, there are also those who believe that the mentally ill do not ever belong outside institutions, and that if you are not sick enough to be in an institution, then you should not be considered “mentally ill” at all. This thinking is dangerous to the rights of the mentally ill. There have been, more so in times past, people who were locked into institutions by uncaring family members who were not willing to endure the challenges of someone who cannot, for example, be “polite.” Being “polite” is something I have a great deal of trouble with myself, and I have lost many people who were close to me because they could not believe that I am truly mentally ill given that I am able to function (the vast majority of the time) outside the confines of a locked ward. These same people are fond of telling me how “intelligent” I am, as if intelligence, in and of itself, means that someone is not mentally ill. (Often, high intelligence goes hand in hand with mental illness.) I suppose it’s easy to think that if you’re smart enough to blog on my level, you’re smart enough to be “polite” 24/7. It doesn’t work that way. Suffice it to say that only doctors can diagnose people, and only doctors can decide treatment plans. That reality will not stop everyone from trying to diagnose themselves and others, though, unfortunately. When someone is very severely mentally ill, to the point of not being able to make decisions about himself, that person is left completely at the mercy of those in his life, or lack of mercy, as the case may be. All people with mental illness, though, rely on some level on the mercy of others. The number of “others” in one’s life increases dramatically for those not living in institutions. In my experience, mercy is rare, indeed, outside the institutions, from the general public, and occurs more frequently within the institutions.
It bothers me greatly that the only time mental illness is talked about on a grand scale is when there is a mass shooting. Since the only time we talk about it as a nation is when something horrific happens, people can tend to identify mental illness as something that is shameful because it appears, in our public discourse, as something that only occurs in people who would do something as horrible as mass murder. I tend to agree with Msgr. Pope that there are too many people unwilling to put the mentally ill under lock and key, but I also believe there are too many people who believe “mental illness” automatically means you need a straight-jacket or you are not “really” mentally ill. The reason for all of this confusion is that the biggest headlines on this topic come when there is a tragedy. Unless that changes, confusion will continue to reign supreme.
UPDATE: Linked by The Other McCain. Thanks, Stacy!