Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Aurora Shooting and the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill

My Brother Ron is both a personal telling of the grief, turmoil and frustrations that families with a mentally ill member experience, and a legal and social history of the turmoil and even violence that communities suffer when those who should be institutionalized are allowed to roam the streets. It was published just days before the shooting in Aurora, CO.

This book is written by my old friend, Clayton Cramer. It tells the heart-breaking story of his older brother Ron, who is schizophrenic. Ron has been in and out of mental health care facilities for many years. When he's out, he's usually on the streets where he is a danger to himself and others.

In the Sixties, this nation launched a dangerous social experiment: the mass deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. Thousands of seriously deranged people were dumped out into the streets of our cities, especially in California (Clayton's family's home state). At the same time, many state legislatures passed laws that made it virtually impossible to institutionalize those with serious mental illness against their will.

In some respects, this experiment was motivated by budgetary concerns, a desire to cut costs. There was also a reaction against past abuses of the system in which perfectly sane people were involuntarily committed for nefarious reasons. The public was also increasingly repulsed by stories of the horrific treatment of the insane in our institutions; many of the psychiatric establishment's "treatments" would be called torture or mutilation in any other context; insulin shock therapy, hydroshock therapy, forced lobotomies, etc. Ken Kesey's best-selling novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, later filmed with Jack Nicholson in the lead role, told the horrifying story of a vital non-conformist who was forcibly lobotomized and reduced to a zombie-like state.

On the other hand, there was an ideological motivation in a time of great cultural changes; I remember talk back in the Sixties about how the mentally ill weren't really "crazy," they just saw the world in a different light, and who are we, the self-designated "normal," to say their perspectives aren't valid? Perhaps these people we call crazy actually have something to teach the rest of us about truth and the nature of reality. (I believe it can be justly said that the Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing was a popularizer of this view. I remember my freshman psychology professor scornfully summarizing Laing's ideas in the phrase, "We're all crazy now, and ain't that great!")

In the wake of the Aurora horror, this is a very timely book.


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