art by: Jerome Lawrence shadow voices: finding hope in mental illness
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Risdon Slate

I encountered a doctor in South Carolina, by the name of Roger Deal… He told me, “I got some good news and I got some bad news for you.” And I said, ever the pessimist, “What is the bad news?” “Well,” he said, “The bad news is you have bi-polar disorder, you are manic-depressive. And the good thing is you got to have above average intelligence, you know.” And I’m like, “Well that’s really great, Doc, but what does that mean for my life? What is going to happen to me?” And Roger Deal said to me, “You know what? ... I get my kicks by taking people like you, and putting you back together again, so that you can move forth and be a success in life.”

I know that in the Bible it said that one must lose their life to gain their life. And I think that in many respects, starting with that journey, in June of 1986, I indeed lost my life as I knew it.

What would really begin to knock down walls in terms of stigma, is this whole issue involving parity, if mental health were covered on par insurance-wise as physical health is. I think that is extremely important, because the general public views people who are mentally ill as different from people who are physically ill.

With mental illness, it’s really no different than diabetes. You don’t look at a person who is diabetic and blame them for being diabetic. Nor should you look at a person who has schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or anxiety disorders and blame them. I think that it would go a long way to dispelling the stigma if we would indeed begin treating people on par, treat them the same.

Basically the deinstitutionalization movement occurred around the 1960’s. It kind of coincided with the civil rights movement. And for all the right reasons. There was some terrible abuses that were taking place in state hospitals, and the idea was to move people from state hospitals and to link them to treatment in the community. Unfortunately what has often happened is the linkage to treatment in the community for whatever reason, has not followed… The problem is we let people out of institutions without linking them to treatment in the community.

In 1960, there were over 600,000 residents in state hospitals in the United States. Today there are less than 60,000 residents in state hospitals in the United States. Where has some of this shift been going? Well, some of it has been going to jails and prisons. The largest in-patient psychiatric facility in the United States is said to be the Los Angeles county jail. Second largest, Rikers Island jail, New York City. There are more people with mental illness in those institutions than in any state hospital in the United States. And what are we seeing today, even a trend here in Florida of closing state hospitals. But we need to link individuals to treatment, and that just is not being done appropriately.

I don’t think there’s any shame in being mentally ill. But I think there is a shame in the way that we treat people who are mentally ill, and particularly by people who should know better: the mental health system, the criminal justice system, and policymakers who have the ability to influence legislation regarding parity. That is the shame. The shame is not in being mentally ill. We should treat people on par with physical illness.