Why Do We Imprison Our Mentally Ill?

medium_3109692508I read a story in the news the other day that was truly tragic. A young doctor, who had been plagued with mental health issues, has disappeared from a highway in Michigan. Gone without a trace.

Her family knew she was having some issues. She tweeted crazy things and had aggressively pursued the affections of a minister who wasn’t remotely interested, until he got a restraining order. She heard voices that told her to do things that weren’t safe or healthy. Her parents and her ex-husband tried to get help for her, though unfortunately, in our culture, mental health care in extreme cases like this isn’t compulsory. Her family and her ex-husband should have been able to press for care. A few months have gone by, and unfortunately, it’s likely that she’s living on the streets somewhere warm, in a paranoid and delusional state. Here’s hoping she surfaces before something horrible happens.

It brought to mind an old friend of mine from high school. We were very close throughout our 20s. Karin struggled with bipolar condition, which became activated when she was 29. I was present for her slow breakdown, watching her behave strangely. She became extremely angry because I “knew that she was the Virgin Mary” and didn’t tell her the news. Watching a close friend’s mental capacities decline was horrific.

I watched her family try – over and over again – to get her the help she needed. They’d have her committed after she did something dangerous, then once she was in the hospital, she’d get on medication and get released. A few weeks would go by, she’d feel better and  she’d stop taking it. The cycle repeated over and over. She became dangerous, as her mind’s crazy fantasies sometimes involved fighting with others over what she knew to be true. I was forced to let the friendship go for my own safety.

Fast forward twenty years and she attempted to friend me on Facebook a few months ago. Knowing that reconnecting might be risky, I ignored the request, though her profile was public and I helplessly watched her go through another breakdown on social media. She believed she was God and for days, she would post non-sensical posts about her career as a movie star and “beauty queen” whose relationships with Steven Spielberg and John Travolta had led to a movie being made about her high school class.

After a few weeks, she disappeared and her mug shot showed up online. In the photo, the terror in her eyes is palpable. It’s obvious that she’s frightened and, most likely, delusional. A search revealed that she’s in Florida and has been arrested several times over the last few years.

We’ve created a system wherein our mentally ill citizens don’t get the treatment they need. Families are helpless. Mental health care for extreme cases is insufficient and hardly covered by insurance. Our mentally ill citizens become homeless and end up in jail. Why does this happen and how can we change it? I wish I had even an inkling of an answer.

photo credit: Kevin Eddy via photopin cc