If I asked you to think about the word pairings Frequent Flyer or Catch and Release you probably wouldn’t guess we might be talking about the current state of mental health care in the United States… Unless your name is Michael Biasotti. Biasotti, a Police Chief, used these very word pairings to describe what he and his officers face when trying to help the mentally ill by taking them to overcrowded hospitals, many of which discharge them before they are stable enough to leave. Biasotti testified at a March 2014 Subcommittee meeting of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S House of Representatives called “Where have all the Patients Gone?” which shed light on a problem called psychiatric bed shortage.
Biasotti spoke not only from his professional experience in law enforcement but also from his personal story. Biasotti is married to a psychologist and met his wife Barbara when she brought her daughter (who suffers from schizophrenia) to the police after she had become psychotic and threatening. Before an Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program saved her life Barbara’s daughter was what Biasotti calls a frequent flyer, having been involuntarily hospitalized more than 2o times.
And the problem, sadly, isn’t limited to overcrowded hospitals. In the same hearing Judge Steve Leifman, who chairs the Florida Supreme Court Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts, testified: “The unfortunate and undeniable conclusion is that because of dramatic and sustained cuts in mental health funding, we have criminalized mental illness in this country and county jails and state prison facilities are where the majority of mental health care and treatment is administered.” Leifman argued that in the last twenty years psychiatric care in the US wasn’t deinstutionalized but transinstituionalized; transinstitutionalized from psychiatric hospitals to prisons and jails. Because no comprehensive and competent community mental health treatment system was ever developed, Leifman said, “In two centuries, we have come full-circle, and our jails are once again psychiatric warehouses.”
Locally, the Georgetown Ministry Center in Washington, DC administers a “street psychology” program where staff attempt to help the mentally ill who, because of their disease, often refuse treatment. GMC’s Executive Director, Gunther Stern, testified at the same hearing: “What I want to impart here is that people who live on the street are real people with families and hopes and dreams, abandoned because of an illness that has robbed them of their competency. The other important takeaway is that almost all of the people I see on the street are there because they have refused treatment, not for a rational reason, but because the illness has insidiously robbed them of the insight to understand that they have an illness and that treatment can help them.”
In a rather brilliant story called “Gerasene the Demoniac” in a book called The Gospel According to Mark (5.1-20) Jesus exorcises demons from a man plaguing the people of the country of the Gerasenes. The man called himself Legion, for he was “many.” Oddly, when word got out that Legion was healed the people of the country of the Gerasenes begged Jesus to leave. Theologian Walter Wink wondered (Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence, Fortress Press, 1986), a la Rene Girard, if the Gerasenes, despite the inconvenience, actually liked having Legion around… It’s nice to have a scapegoat – a place to deposit our collective psychosis… for without a scapegoat we have to think about our own need for healing. Wink asks: “The demoniac was his society’s deviant. What do deviants tell us about our societies?” The deviant here is the society, by the way, not the individual.
This Sunday, at the church I am a member of, we are going to ask people to contribute to what we call a Mustard Seed. A small step toward solving a big problem. We are asking our parishioners to offer financial gifts that we will send to the Georgetown Ministry Center to fund their street psychology program. You can view the House Subcommittee hearing here: http://georgetownministrycenter.org/2014/03/27/where-have-all-the-patients-gone/ There are no commercials.