This Op-Ed by yours truly appears in today’s issue of Florida Today.
President Trump’s recent State of the Union address covered a myriad of topics, all vital toward improving life, liberty and happiness in a world rife with poverty, violence, crime, terror and more. Absent from his to-do list was any mention about government’s role in dealing with the epidemic of serious mental illness.
We blindly turn our backs to this tragic problem as though it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t make a lot of noise. It gets little attention. There are no protesters or demonstrations. The media doesn’t cover the problems nor do bleeding heart groups. Politicians skirt the topic with a minimum of attention because mental health is not a priority and garners no political steam, left or right. Besides, it’s difficult to quantify. It makes no difference to any political base.
The medical field does their part in numbing psychotic people with prescription medicines, which only works if the patient 1) does not abuse the drugs, 2) does not sell the drugs or 3) fails to take the drugs. But it does not solve and/or cure the illness. It’s a means of getting by.
But it does impact social, economic and criminal issues from sea to shining sea. Mental illness is not partial or ignorant to any race, creed, gender, or ethnic division. It is omnipresent, behind convenient stores, in the bushes, in emergency rooms and autopsy trays. We, the people, do nothing until a crime is committed and then we relegate sick people to a prison cell for years.
I could cite statistics galore, but that doesn’t get the message across to where government leaders should prepare to do something about it. For politicians, there is no payoff, especially in votes and power, and certainly not money. For starters, consider these facts cited by The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
- An average of 20 veterans die by suicide daily, or 720 per year.
- Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion per year in lost earnings.
- Over 20 percent of state prison inmates suffer from serious mental illness.
- 3.7 percent of adults in America suffer from schizophrenia or serious bi-polar disorders. If true, that equates to over 10 million adults.
- Over half of the 20 million adults who suffer from substance abuse are also mentally ill.
Florida’s Baker Act intervenes when police are confronted with someone who appears dangerous to himself or others. But that’s just an overnighter to let folks calm down. When people have serious mental issues, a response like that is tantamount to applying band-aids to cancer.
In the mid-1950s, roughly 558,000 people were confined to psychiatric hospitals in America. That was when our population stood at 165 million. Today, our population has nearly doubled to 328 million but there are less than 40 thousand patients in psychiatric institutions. The numbers are mind-boggling.
Between U.S. Supreme Court rulings, advances in mood-control drugs and sheer ignorance from national leaders to the obvious, the crisis will only lead to more suicides, homelessness, wrecked families, mass shootings and more, because we refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Never mind the costs to taxpayers in treatment, welfare and prison cells.
Extremely sick people suffering from serious psychoses do not belong in prisons, the backs of convenience stores and nearby scrublands. They are people who need meaningful treatment, as we would treat someone with a serious physical disease. They need to be protected from themselves. Instead, we wait for crimes to happen, then use jails and prisons as a treatment center for illness.
I have experience with such matters. I worked 30 years in the streets of Miami-Dade, sixteen of those dealing with major crimes and mental health deficiencies. My own father died in a New York mental hospital in 1941. My son died last month in the back seat of a derelict car from an overdose of two powerful narcotics which a doctor had just prescribed for him.
He wasn’t just a junkie. He had been dysfunctional his entire life.
It’s a long, sad story.