by Bruce Hanify Things changed for me as a result of being put into “the bucket” — the Involuntary Treatment Act (“ITA”) hearings at the Memorial psychiatric unit in Yakima. Each of us prosecutors in that rotation were there for a month at a time, twice a year. With two “mental” hearings every week, that meant you were at the hospital by 8 a.m. eight times a month. During that time I became familiar with the face of mental illness. How that affected me I could not have foreseen.
It gradually dawned on me that many decent human beings are trapped in some sort of repetitious chemistry pattern from which they can’t escape. I’ve heard criminal defendants say, “Your Honor! This isn’t me!” And from my conditioning, and my own prejudice, I assumed they were making excuses. My rotation through the ITA hearings taught me otherwise. What I finally saw was that there is this kind of static, or white noise, that operates like an Attention Deficit Disorder in many people. It’s like they can’t get their little marble to roll down the same track every day. People who don’t overeat assume people who do are weak; people who perform similar functions every day assume those who can’t are moral feeblings. The fact is, depression, overeating and, in many cases, criminal conduct, are functions of brain chemistry. But we don’t discuss brain chemistry. We thump people. Then we wonder why they don’t get fixed.
The dramatic examples are perhaps less instructive. I saw a little fellow so far out of control that it took three big lugs to throw him to the floor and strap him to a board. Two days later, after the meds kicked in, he was a lucid and very intelligent — and very charming — fellow. His mother was a long-time educator, a Ph.D. There was no shortage of intelligence in that family! What I learned from several of the psychiatrists was that frequently very intelligent people are also not very stable mentally. It goes with the turf. Several psychiatrists have told me, for example, that you can’t have bi-polar disorder unless you have a fairly impressive IQ. One psychiatrist put it bluntly: “Stupid people don’t go bipolar.”
But the truly troubling cases are those folks who wander in and out of society’s institutions with ghostly anonymity. Their lives never gel. They live with fear and anxiety and conflict, all of which compound one another over the years, a thick layer of scar tissue that suffocates the life from them. After God knows how many tours through jails and mental hospitals, their self-image is shattered; and no matter how much people put on the face of compassion, deep down these folks know themselves as rejects. They don’t really believe anyone is there to help them; they’ve stopped believing anyone can.
It is truly astonishing how many people in the mental health professions don’t seem to have any genuine insight into suffering. The system is loaded with psychologists who believe they’re performing healing functions when they say things like ‘cognitive’ or ‘behavioral’ while adopting the most intellectual expression they can muster. It takes a rough and tumble Irish-American like myself to see it. I sometimes joked, “The Irish are born bipolar.” Those of us who have felt the sting of lonely anguish have a genuine connection with those who cry out, “Your Honor! This isn’t me!” The problem is, seeing that and doing something about it are two very different things.
Bureaucracies are not geared to address that very human side of things, which is a bit ironic when you think of it. If government funds can’t sustain an effective healing system for the mentally ill, what would? That’s a legitimate question, to which there is no ready answer. Most Americans lazily assume that once the government has spent money, the problem is solved. When you and I slough off our creative, problem-solving powers to an abstraction, we really haven’t done anything except evade the issue. I would describe that inertia as typical of how we govern ourselves in America. Creativity is local; government is abstract. Want to solve problems? Get in there and go to work.
A reader asked the other day, “Do you really believe that we have lawyers because people won’t accept responsibility?” She then observed that when people try to argue their own cases in court, they are shut out. This position has two problems. First, it assumes that ordinary people typically make rational arguments, which isn’t true. People make emotional, not rational, arguments. If it were otherwise, this country would be a very different place. The second problem is that she missed my point. If your life can only be resolved in the courtroom, you are not taking responsibility for it.
As a result of my tour through the mental health system, I concluded that we are barbarians when it comes to addressing human suffering. We really don’t know what we’re doing.
And no, I don’t have an immediate answer. One thing I do know is, American society would be wealthier and more peaceful if people were encouraged to pull their own weight without resorting to blame, whether penal blame, political blame, or any other kind of blame. Blame doesn’t heal. Responsibility does.
How to do that? Do you have any ideas?
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BRUCE HANIFY 2012