I can't tell you the last time I read a book in two days straight, but that's what I just did. The book I found so riveting is called "Crazy" by former Washington Post reporter, Pete Earley. In my opinion, every emergency services worker who routinely encounters the mentally ill should read Earley's book — particularly police. If enough people do this, lives could undoubtedly be saved. Maybe even yours or the life of someone you love.
Earley's story is simple. He has a son — a smart, accomplished recent college graduate who suddenly developed the overt signs of mental illness, more specifically bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression, but no matter what it's called, it's a disease, which along with many other mental illnesses (most commonly schizophrenia), robs intelligent, productive and talented people of their lives, dignity and opportunity. Earley's point is that it doesn't always have to be that way.
Because of changes in the law, which resulted in the mass closings of America's mental institutions and other legislation that reduced caretakers' access and authority over individuals suffering from mental illnesses, many perfectly nice, ordinary people endure lives they would not have otherwise chosen. You find them a lot on your beats — they're the homeless guy sleeping under the bridge, the bag lady wandering with the grocery cart, the teenager who goes to school armed and angry. They are people who may have illnesses that are not being treated — or if they are — the treatment is not working.
And here is the real kicker on mental illness — many of the symptoms are treatable. Medication and therapy work for a great majority of those who suffer from certain types of mental illnesses, but because of the laws we now have on the books they cannot be treated against their will.
Think about this for a moment: a mentally ill person, someone in the throes of a serious life-threatening episode, under most circumstances cannot be forced to take the medication that could save their lives and possibly yours and the lives of other innocents, even by their guardians. That means your adult child, parent or sibling could be suffering from dangerous mental problems, refuse their medication and their treatment, and yet there would be nothing you or anyone else could do about it. Why? Because there is an army out there prepared to defend their right to remain unmedicated and dangerous.
There was certainly a dark period in this country when innocent people were herded into mental hospitals without provocation. The mentally ill were not only institutionalized in disgraceful conditions, but they were often mistreated. No one wants to go back to those days. But while no one disputes the rights of the mentally ill and everyone believes they deserve protection, this country has gone too far in doing so. And in that process we have abdicated our responsibility toward society and inflicted much greater damage on mentally ill individuals — all in the name of protecting them. This is one of those "for your own good" scenarios that inflicts more pain and harm than good.
Here is what we have to do as police officers to effect change:
- Seek specialized training for your officers in dealing with mentally disturbed subjects.
- Take the concerns and fears of friends and families dealing with mentally ill persons seriously.
- Know the laws pertaining to treatment and handling of the mentally ill in your state.
- Recognize that the mentally ill need to be in treatment — not jail. Jailing them only creates a vicious and never-ending circle.
- Work with state and federal advocates to put common sense back into this country mental health systems.
And, my personal recommendation, as someone who has confronted mental illness in her own family and understands the expense and heartbreak this country's policies have caused, start the ball rolling by reading Pete Earley's book. You'll learn something important.