"The inmates of the State of Oklahoma's mental facilities might be forgiven for wondering if their keepers (but not all of them) are the kind of people who at home lock their children in closets, or fly into a rage and scream, "I'll make you act right!" There are certainly people who need help, but that kind?
When I was inside TCBH, I met people with apparent delusions who needed assisted living, but not necessarily prison-like confinement in an intellectual desert and warm-body warehouse. There was the old woman who said she was God, and promised everyone a big car when we all got out. There was the old guy who had angry conversations with either people who weren’t there, or simply was acting out some internal dialog, erupting now and then with “Bam! Bam!”. There was the guy who went around saying that he had or would get a contract with the State to refurbish the facility, and that he was going to make a Univac computer out of a long-outdated vacuum-tube technology called Nuvistors. Some would stand and stare at nothing or break down and cry for no apparent reason. Or maybe because people they counted upon had abandoned them there. I wasn’t sure about the guy who said he had a castle in Poland. I had no knowledge or proof that he didn’t.
Although a few made threats or allusions to threats (“There’s going to be blood!”), aside from a few bloodless female cat fights, few had any violence in them. Not even the big guy with a history of abuse who made “money” by tearing strips of paper out of books, and did karate kicks in front of his mirror. The worst violence was directed at him or herself. Like the suicides, and the very nice young lady with deep scars on her arms who heard a voice telling her to cut herself and remove limbs. She was missing part of one leg just below the knee, and was on 24-hour observation.
Most of the problem seemed to be that no one wanted them around. They made regular people uncomfortable. They were there to be warehoused and drugged until either they became well-behaved enough to be acceptable, or the drugs made them shake so bad with palsy that they couldn’t care for themselves on the outside. The old guy with the angry expressions shook so bad that he wore a lot of his coffee on his front. The young lady with the missing shin was just starting to shake.
If you think it was about healing, consider this. The food was greasy and salty, with few fresh vegetables and almost no fruit. The shrinks showed up for maybe thirty minutes out of a week, if that. The psychiatrist who signed the petition for my commitment came in one session, and didn’t know either my history or the fact that she had prescribed medication for depression. Then she threatened to overmedicate me for not agreeing that I should be there. Her idea of breaking a hunger strike was to deny the electrolytes that kept a heart from racing.
We were not allowed to see any outside doctors at all, not even psychiatrists or general practitioners of long standing. It took a lot of bitching just to get TCBH just to ask established doctors for records of current prescriptions, so that they could be continued. And what real doctor doesn’t know that an asthma rescue inhaler has to be available upon request, not just twice a day at med times? The only times I can recall that anyone got out of there to see a real doctor (or dentist) was then one of the old guys started choking on food, and my abscessed tooth finally got so bad that I couldn’t eat.
The ones that got out fastest tended to be those who had actually committed some act of violence, the suicides, and those who ran from, threatened or fought police. One young woman came in with knife scars on her throat, and either left in a few days, or was transferred to the other unit, though that rarely happened. Apparently they were the easiest to coerce into “giving the Wookie what he wants”, the politically correct statements that the psychiatrists and counselors wanted to hear.
Another group with fast turnaround were those who came in for a quick detox, especially if they had been found unconscious or senseless. One young woman came in for reasons unknown, looking like an Original Gangster, and was back out in a few days. When someone was picking her old clothes out of a bin, out dropped a glass crack pipe. No doubt more miracle cures.
Most seemed to be there because they had been denounced by some person or persons who just didn’t like the way they acted. For example, State law Title 43A-1-103 includes the in the definition, “Risk of harm to self or others”, the clause 18.c, “having placed another person or persons in a reasonable fear of violent behavior directed towards such person or persons or serious physical harm to them as manifested by serious and immediate threats”. This has two parts. If someone has actually pulled out a weapon, pointed it at someone and threatened to use it one them, or set up an obvious deadly boobytrap, or deliberately torched a building with someone in it, those actions obviously fit the second part.
But many people being warehoused and drugged only “fit” the first part, the “reasonable fear of violent behavior” as seen or alleged by the person making the complaint. As Professor Joan G. Brannon of the School of Government of the University of North Carolina put it in “The Magistrate’s Role in Involuntary Commitment”, Administration of Justice Bulletin, 05 September 2007:
“Dangerous to Others
A magistrate must also issue a custody order for a mentally ill respondent if he or she is dangerous to others. A respondent is dangerous to others if, within the relevant past, he or she has: (1) inflicted or attempted to inflict serious bodily harm on another, or has acted in a way that creates a substantial risk of serious bodily harm to another, or has engaged in extreme destruction of property, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that such conduct will be repeated.36 (36. G.S. 122C-3(11)(b).)”
She goes on to state: “In order to find a respondent dangerous to others on the basis of threats alone, however, the petitioner must present specific evidence about the kind of harm the respondent threatened, when the threats were made, and in what context. For example, the mere allegation that the “respondent ha[d] made statements to her husband of a threatening nature,” without more, is insufficient.40”
Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1979 standard in Addington v. Texas that such allegations require “clear and convincing evidence” to justify involuntary commitment, it seems apparent that the “context” must be fully explored, and not rest entirely upon the mere allegations of those who have bigoted or intolerant or malicious axes to grind. Failure to establish that those making the allegations are indeed truthful can only lead to an extremely damaging miscarriage of justice and deprivation of civil liberties.
Unfortunately, few who make false complaints out of bigotry, intolerance or malicious self-interest have any fear or probability of ever being caught and held to account. Especially not when those investigating the allegations are bigots trained by bigots. They are like D.W. Griffith, who directed the 1915 silent film “Birth of a Nation”. In which a skulking white man dressed up in blackface threatened the purity and virginity of a Southern damsel, only to be thwarted by the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan.
No one has to explain to Black Americans how the bigoted myth of uncontrollable racial lust works. The current bigoted myth that those with mental illness tend to be criminal and violent is just as effective. In the movies and news media, people with disabilities are either supercrips (Google it) or serial killers/mass murders, with serial killers/mass murders way in the lead. For example, "In this content analysis of television, the portrayal of persons with mental disorders was highly correlated with the portrayal of violent crime. The mentally ill were found to be nearly 10 times more violent than the general population of television characters, and 10 to 20 times more violent (during a two week sample) than the mentally ill in the U.S. population (over the course of an entire year). The mentally ill on television were also judged to have a negative impact on society and a negative quality of life." [Diefenbach, DL. "The Portrayal Of Mental Illness On Prime-Time Television."Journal of Community Psychology 25 (3): 289-302 MAY 1997]
It’s so easy to lock up people and make them pay for one’s intolerance when they have no political clout and can’t fight back. Or, as one disabled person put it, “Why don’t we have a march on Washington? Because it’s such a bitch to get there.”
Additional reading. Even just the abstracts of the articles are instructive. Other reading can be found at PubMed.gov, the online journal database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine - somewhat more substantial than myths. Search on “serious mental illness”, “crime”, “violence” and related terms in various combinations.
1. Monahan, Jerome.
"Celluloid madness." (Teacher)(PSHE)(portrayal of mental illness in the media) Times Educational Supplement, Dec 5, 2003
2. Monahan, John. Circa 1980 (1st Ed), 1995 (new Ed.), The Clinical Prediction of Violent Behavior, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale NJ and London, 134 p.
3. Monahan, John, and Steadman, Henry J. 1994, Violence and Mental Disorder: Developments in Risk Analysis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 318 p.
4. Schneider, Irving
"The theory and practice of movie psychiatry." American Journal of Psychiatry. Vol 144(8), Aug 1987, pp. 996-1002
5. Signorielli, Nancy.
"The stigma of mental illness on television." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Summer 1989 v33 n3 p325-331
6. Wahl, O.F., Lefkowits, J. Y.
"Impact Of a Television Film on Attitudes Toward Mental-Illness." American Journal of Community Psychology 17 (4): 521-528 Aug 1989
7. Nasar, Sylvia
"The Man Behind a Beautiful Mind: The real John Nash never saw visions, and after 1970 he never took medication. But his love affair with Alicia, he says, is 'just like a movie.'" Newsweek March 11, 2002 p52 (780 words)
8. Rockmore, Daniel
"Exploiting a Beautiful Mind." (the real life of John Nash, the mathematician depicted in 'A Beautiful Mind') The Chronicle of Higher Education Jan 25, 2002 v48 i20 pB18(2)
9. Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. Contributors: Otto F. Wahl - author. Publisher: Rutgers University Press. Place of Publication: New Brunswick, NJ. Publication Year: 1995.
10. Marilyn Dahl, The Role of the Media in Promoting Images of Disability- Disability as Metaphor: The Evil Crip, Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 18, No 1 (1993)
11. Lisa Lopez Levers, Representations Of Psychiatric Disability In Fifty Years Of Hollywood Film:
An Ethnographic Content Analysis, Theory & Science (2001), ISSN: 1527-5558
12. Linden M, Kavanagh R.
Attitudes of qualified vs. student mental health nurses towards an individual diagnosed with schizophrenia. J Adv Nurs. 2011 Oct 9. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2011.05848.x.