BY JENNY HONG. SEPTEMBER 30, 2019.
Beyond internal battles, mental illness patients face institutionalized barriers
Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist book written by Pete Earley, breaks ground on mental health literature. Earley is a long-time journalist and former Washington Post reporter. When his son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he was determined to dig deeper into America’s mental health system and made the difficult decision of publicizing his son’s story in hopes of sparking awareness. The project took him to the Miami-Dade County jail where he spent a year following the stories of its inhabitants, many were people with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. Crazy is a journalist’s objective search for truth and the heartfelt account of a father on his son’s breakdown and journey to recovery.
Shocking Prison Stats
In an upcoming talk at Michigan Medicine’s Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program on Tuesday, October 15, Earley will address the phenomenon of jails and prisons as a dumping ground for people with mental illnesses. He supports reforms in the criminal justice and health system.People with mental illnesses stay in jails and prisons eight times longer than others charged with identical crimes. The way the health system is structured inevitably plays a role, impacting the availability of medical help for mental illness patients.
Extreme means to qualify for treatment
I had to lie about my son threatening me to get him taken into a hospital rather than put in jail, Earley shares. He also writes of a friend’s conversation with their doctor: “Do I have to wait for my daughter to hang herself before you’ll treat her?” And he [the doctor] said, “Yes. If she attempts suicide, then we can do something. Sorry, but it’s the law.” According to Earley, it costs $38,000 to keep a prisoner in Michigan incarcerated and $10,000 on average to provide treatment. When mental illness patients receive help, the recovery rate is as high as 85%. Even for people that do try to get help, support isn’t always readily available. If you don’t have a life threatening emergency and go to a hospital, Earley says, you will wait an average of three hours. If you have a mental health problem that is not life-threatening, you will wait three days.
Commitment laws, revaluing priorities
The current laws place a heavy responsibility on mentally-ill people to take care of their conditions. Earley says what they need is hospital care, not to be put in jails and prisons. The law is very clear, he laments, you have to be dangerous or gravely disabled in most states [to get treatment]. I think waiting for dangerousness is foolish— it hurt my son. Additionally, he argues that insurance companies end up having a strong say on who gets treatment and for how long. Shifting money from jails to community services and focusing on early interventions will greatly help mental illness patients. Earley believes that involuntary commitment for treatment should be the last resort. It is better to find a way for individuals to want to accept treatment, he shares, but often people who are sick don’t realize they are sick, which is why I think the [determining factor for hospitalization] should be how sick someone, rather than waiting for them to endanger themselves.
Break up the taboo and myths
“I believe the old idea that mental illnesses are a social construct has been disproven,” Earley affirms. “While there is no such thing as a mental illness blood test, we know from brain scans that individuals with schizophrenia, for example, have spots in their brain that are clearly damaged. While urging change on an institutional level, as individuals we play a role in the social construct of mental health. Communities can mitigate the stigma surrounding mental illness patients, and it’s time we have more conversations on the current research of mental health and channels of support.”
13th Annual Prechter Lecture featuring Pete Earley
University of Michigan, A. Alfred Taubman Biomedical Science Research Bldg,
Kahn Auditorium109 Zina Pitcher Place, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109
The event is free but registration is required.