Tragedies like those at Virginia Tech. and Northern Illinois University stand as horrific monuments to the folly of our country abandoning its mental health care system. We hear the word “senseless” used again and again by a sadly uninformed news media as they search blindly for meaning in these grotesque acts of violence. But for all of us who remember the near complete dismantling of our mental health system by Reagan conservatives during the 1980s, these horrible acts do indeed make sense, they are but a part of a steady stream of violence and tragedy that is filling our prisons with the victims of mental illness. Today’s “prisoners” were once considered “victims,” they were patients cared for and protected from self destruction by our mental health system.
My mother and father are an example of the millions of citizens caught in the middle of our nation’s mental health tragedy. During the great labor shortage caused by the Second World War, my parents responded to the cries for help coming from State Hospitals. They became mental health workers. Indeed they met and married during war time working at a State Hospital. Following the war my father became a Methodist minister but soon returned to join my mother in their newly chosen work as mental health nurses. They planned to devote their lives to this important work.
The 1950s, 60s, and 70s saw great improvements in mental health care and treatment. There was every reason to believe that the 1980s, a time of great national prosperity, should have been a time of even greater progress in mental health. You can imagine the crushing blow felt by my parents and mental health professionals around the country as the Reagan revolution cut off this flourishing progress and indeed caused the closing of mental health facilities and programs around the country. Most of Illinois’ mental hospitals were closed and then reopened as prisons. My parents were forced to find nursing jobs outside of the mental health system and eventually took jobs as nurses at Menard State Prison.
I leave it to the reader to guess at the motivation of Reagan Conservatives for abandoning the nation’s victims of mental illness. It certainly was no great surprise that no money was saved by this vicious backlash against mental illness and the mental health care system. The results were as predicted. Those suffering from mental illness who did not become homeless street people soon found their way into our nation’s prisons where their mental illness was finally confronted (not dealt with) at a much, much greater cost to society.
Today, the typical inmate in U. S. prisons is suffering from mental illness and the percentage of mental illness in our prison population continues to rise. Every study clearly shows that it would cost our society far less money to be proactive than to allow these suffering victims to sink into helplessness and eventually run afoul of the law. Like the now infamous college gunmen, mental illness is nearly always recognized long before these troubled individuals turn their cries for help into acts of violence.
My parents were once a part of an effective mental health care system that was developing and building a support structure for those in our society, like today’s college gunmen, who’s cries for help today echo as the sound of gunfire and senseless death.
-- Dan Barrett
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