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Carol Smaldino

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The Murder of Mental Health Caring

Posted: 06/17/11 05:01 PM ET

My husband, having finished reading a huge piece beginning on page one of today's New York Times, turned to me and said, "There is something very wrong with a country that has no qualms about spending tens of millions and more for Libya and other wars, and that so nonchalantly defends austerity measures that cut vital services to its own weak and needy." You bet... I agreed even before reading the story, fully expecting to second that emotion.

The article he cited is titled, "A Schizophrenic, a Slain Worker, Troubled Questions" by Deborah Sontag. The story began on page one and continued to a two full pages; something rarely seen these days. Fittingly it appeared on the day of the New York premiere of the movie Page One: Inside the New York Times, this piece shows hard journalism at its best. It is a gruesome, ugly, tragic and haunting story. We see the picture of a young vibrant 22-year-old social worker alone with a psychotic, violent man in a residence who was not taking his medications. He savagely beat to a pulp the girl who wanted to help him, killing her after she promised his mother she was on his side and she would protect him.

Aside from the fact that many readers of many pieces in many publications have their minds made up about any given issue, this story can make a reader or listener go to and from heartbreak and rage again and again. Briefly there is the story of a man whose ravaging mental illness appeared in his teens through the onset of hearing voices that told him to do bad things. After periods of opposition to treatment, he begged for help when he stayed almost constantly in a shower because his experience was that his skin was crawling. He got in trouble for violent offenses and thus came into contact with the Massachusetts Mental Health system, or lack thereof.

My intent is not to scapegoat one state or one department despite my shared anger and grief with the family of the apparently wonderful vivacious and caring Stephanie Moulton who are left in disbelief that their loved one was left alone, alone, alone with a potentially violent patient. Instead, I think this is an opportunity for us all to stop from judgment for a moment and refrain from the temptation to grab onto blame and fire a few people leaving the system unchanged.

First, in this country, we do not consider mental health as a priority from the get go. We do not teach it in our schools, teach the signs and practices of emotional fitness, such as empathy for self and others, empathy for diversity. We don't teach that anger is an emotion we all have that only becomes dangerous when it is congested and buried or when it receives no taming at all. For example, we know from the outpouring of support for families of children with autism, that support is better than putting easy blame on environment and on parents.

As the New York Times piece proves, the Stephanie Moulton tragedy is rooted in a systemic dysfunction. Consider mental health, if you would, in the context of coldness. Aloofness, detachment, lack of feeling for any of us, any of our citizens, is coldness. This is not politically sane or sound or wise or cost effective. And we -- all of us -- are allowing big shots put into office by us to cut programs and deny us access to the information we need. In fact, we need not only mental health supports, but knowledge about detecting depression that is masked by rage and vice versa. We need tactics to spot bullying before it starts and to know that it will often be the victim who victimizes.

There is too much sadness, such abortion of life and sanity, too much anguish that will last forever, too much to let this particular story pass as a sorry piece of evidence for further hate or pointing of fingers. We are all responsible for caring, and for the lack of caring for some over others to which we have become habituated.

So many of us have been watching our nation detach from the caring we speak about through anthems and promises and dreams. The American Dream was to include everyone, even the tired and the poor, and those without benefit of private rehabs or psychiatric facilities. Perhaps if some of the rich and famous who have suffered the damage of addiction to substances, to people, and to toxicity would come forward we might further the sense of awareness of just how much mental illness can equalize the playing field. When Robert Downey Jr. was at the depth of his trouble, he was said to have responded to a fan who touted him as a famous actor, "I'm not a star; I'm a junkie."

Death equalizes us all and so does psychiatric illness. We just refuse to see the latter unless except in the case of the lucky few who can afford legal and medical protection.

I'd like to feel we can be helped with our own mindfulness to find the compassion that becomes more plentiful and less prejudiced.

 

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