If you were to encounter my son, Tim, a tall, gaunt man in ragged clothes, on a San Francisco street, you might step away from him. His clothes, his dark unshaven face and his wild curly hair stamp him as the stereotype of the chronically mentally ill street person.
People are afraid of what they see when they glance at Tim. Policymakers pass ordinances to keep people who look like him at arm’s length. But when you look just a little more closely, what you find is a young man with a sly smile, quick wit and an inquisitive mind who — when he’s healthy — bears a striking resemblance to the youthful Muhammad Ali.
Tim is homeless. But when he was a toddler, my colleagues in the Connecticut state legislature couldn’t get enough of cuddling him. Yet it’s the policies of my generation of policymakers that put that formerly adorable toddler — now a troubled 6-foot-5 adult — on the street. And unless something changes, the policies of today’s generation of policymakers will keep him there.
I could not help but think of three stories from my own life involving mental illness. Please read through them, and then wonder yourself - are our current policies dealing with mental illness and institutionalization and care crazy - or not?
My College Advisor Days
When I was a graduate student, I worked as an advisor for undergraduates in philosophy. One day, a man came into my office to talk. As we began, he explained to me that he despised women. Needless to say, I assumed he was joking around. Yet, as our conversations continued and our relationship extended, I realized that the man was exceptionally ill.
He was quite serious about hating women. Neverthless, he somehow seemed to like me (I could not bring myself to stop attempting to be kind and helpful to him.) This "liking," however, involved a show of power and control. One day at class, I noted that he had written on the blackboard (in Latin, of course) that he loved me. Another time, as I was leaving class, I felt a sharp pinch on my butt. Yes; it was my student. He whispered in my ear, "I want you to know that I can do whatever I want to you - when I want to do it."
When talking to me in my office, he requested that I close the window. He was concerned that people on the street could hear our conversation - despite the street below being noisy with students and vehicles, and my office on the third floor. He also explained that people on television were talking about him.
I did speak to my dissertation advisors about the student. They in turn talked to the head of psychiatry at the U of MN. He explained that the man sounded like a classic schizophrenic. Unless, however, he did something that was clearly threatening my life - or, unless he wanted to seek help on his own - nothing could be done to remove him or even examine him against his will.
Finally, after driving home one day and entering my "secure" building's underground parking, I hit the button on the elevator to get to my apartment. The door opened - and, there he was. Don't ask me how he got in; all I know was I was scared to death. I moved into the apartment of a friend to be safe; the student left school - and I don't know what happened to him.
My Bridge Buddy
A few years ago, a bridge buddy of mine called up and told me he wanted to purchase a condo for his son for Christmas. I set up our appointments, headed over to my friend's place - and - immediately recognized my friend was in no condition to make any financial decisions whatsoever. Despite having a law degree and an MBA from Harvard, my friend was terrifically disheveled and looking strange. As we began to talk, he sounded even stranger. When he told me - more than once - that his son had murdered some people and they were buried under his building, I knew something was seriously wrong. I told him, "You can purchase a condo for your son in February or March. Right now, though, you are sick. Please come with me to the hospital."
No luck. I and other friends tried to help him, yet he refused to follow our pleas. We called hospitals and the police; they told us the same story I had heard years before with my student. Unless someone is an immediate, critical danger - no intervention can be done.
My friend had a history of alcoholism, and I thought that his disease had simply progressed to a terrible low. What had happened, however, was that he had been prescribed an anti-depressant that had turned him into a manic-depressive. After a week of having him call us at 3AM from downtown, lost and wanting us to join him, or more and more hallucinations of a bizarre order, something awful did happen. Around 1AM, my friend headed two blocks away to his country club, then shot up their front door. The good news was that no one was hurt. The bad news was a night watchman saw him; he was arrested and charged with a felony.
Ultimately and ironically, now my friend was committed to the mental health ward of a local hospital.... but, of course, only after he had committed a crime that might have killed people! And, the sad news is that eventually, although we were all quite certain that the anti-depressant had caused the aberrant behavior, and not the alcholism of years, he plead guilty to a felony. Had he gone to trial and lost - he would have been in prison for a minimum of 5 years, rather than the workhouse for 5 months.
Had laws been in place that would have allowed friends and family to have him examined and held for 48-72 hours, though - this nightmare for the community and for my friend himself could have all been avoided.
The third story happened a couple of miles from my office, in a quiet neighborhood where many of my friends live and work. A man who had a history of mental illness, despite trying to get help from his employer, finally had to be let go. He returned to the office - well armed. Before the shooting was done, five people were killed.
The owner of the company, an Israeli immigrant, had created his company out of nothing, and turned it into a large success. Well known and loved in the community as someone who "gave back" tremendously, his death and that of co-workers and a UPS man who happened to be in the "wrong place at the wrong time" were deeply mourned.
Just as awful was the realization that this was a crime that someone could have stopped - if only we didn't have laws like we do on the books. His parents knew their son was seriously ill. Yet, they could not get him to get help - and - help could not be forced upon him.
How many times in how many communities do we hear of similar stories of horror and death? How many more awful news stories must we read about people with mental illnesses committing crimes, before we change how we do business with this?
In a few weeks, I will head for San Francisco for a bridge tournament. SF is a delightful city and a great place for worldwide players to gather. Nevertheless, I am always a bit quesy about one aspect of the town: the mentally ill people living on the street. As I walk from my hotel by luxury stores, I see people living in boxes and raving at the passer bys - as they often urinate and defecate on the street. Almost all are either mentally ill and/or addicted. Is this how the sick in a beautiful city should be treated - left alone to live in their own filth on the sidewalk?
I am convinced there must be better ways. Here's hoping that those who can change the law will one day - and soon.