10/17/2014 04:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Am Not That Afraid of Ebola


Like anyone, the public health threat of Ebola is on my mind and especially its devastating impact on the countries of West Africa. But as an American, I'm not especially worried about Ebola, which I know may not be the most popular of sentiments these days. The truth is I am all too comfortable with the life threatening dangers of public health emergencies because I live and breathe these issues every day as I try to advocate in the world of our own broken mental health, prison and education systems. For the richest country in the world to have third world problems like this is impossible to comprehend. Did you know that we put more kids in juvenile detention than any other country? And to make matters worse, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences people to spend their lives in jail for crimes they committed before they turn 18.

Just a few weeks ago at the precise moment that the media was throwing around multi million dollar price tags for George Clooney's wedding, there was also headline news about a man with schizophrenia who was in solitary confinement in a prison in North Carolina and died en route as he was being transferred to a psychiatric facility. The cause of death was dehydration. In layman terms, the man died from thirst.

Every day articles are sent to me alerting me to injustices with children and adults with mental health disorders. Some of the most difficult to read are the ones about children with behavioral challenges who die accidentally while being restrained at schools and residential facilities. Today the news of a man in Texas with a long history of mental illness who is going to be executed felt much more disturbing than the scare headlines about Ebola. For me, Ebola is easy to understand and accept - and we should certainly respond with both medical expertise and human concern to the threat it represents. But killing people with medical conditions like disorders of the brain renders me speechless.

Today's headlines grab our attention, and often result in needed action. What's so much harder is for us to see and respond to the silent crises that already damage the lives of millions in our midst. Mahatma Gandhi said, "Where there is love, there is life." While love may not heal the Ebola crisis, it sure could bring some life to our nation's prisoners with mental illness - and to helping the children we love from ending up there in the first place.