It’s a tale as old as time

I have worked with mentally ill populations in one way or another since the late 1960s. This may be why I am a tad skeptical about all the blathering and bleating about the care Alaska provides to this population and all the politicians swearing they’ll do something about it. Because, quite frankly, very little has changed in the over forty years I’ve worked in any field even tangentially involved with the mentally ill.

It would seem as though in 2018 it should not have to be said but I’ll say it anyway. In Alaska, the mentally ill are treated as criminals while, in fact, the state of Alaska’s treatment of this population is the only thing criminal.

Bedlam was a mental hospital in England hundreds of years ago. Their treatment of the mentally ill was only slightly below what we provide today. And the problem just gets exacerbated with movies like Bedlam (1946 version) that show the mentally ill as less than human.

We seem to be afraid of people who are mentally ill because they are so different from us. We wouldn’t put someone in jail if they couldn’t get their cancer treated because the beds were full. But we think nothing of putting the mentally ill in jail for no other reason than that they scare us. They hear voices we don’t hear. They walk a path we can’t see. And part of what we can’t see is the terror many mentally ill feel at what their brain is doing to them.

Whether you believe it or not, mental illness is a disease, not a crime or a punishment sent by some vengeful god. People with this illness deserve the same care and consideration we’d give to someone having a stroke or heart attack. These people are as human as we are. They are not responsible for the fact that their brains work differently. And if part of the problem is drugs or alcohol abuse, well, we don’t deny lung cancer patients medical help even if we can trace their cancer back to their smoking choice.

But none of that seems to matter because nothing every changes. Back in the late sixties and early seventies we emptied out mental hospitals with the promise of creating community mental health clinics to support the population so suddenly dumped on the streets of America. But those clinics never did happen. And now, in 2018, we hear politicians making the same promises. I simply no longer believe them. They will make pious statements right up until they win and then they will explain how there is no money to do what needs to be done.

So send your money to any and all organizations bringing Alaska to court over it’s handling of this very vulnerable population. (The Disability Law Center of Alaska is a good place to start.) Because the only way change will happen is when the court orders it. And even then I expect it will be done stingily and grudgingly.

Shame on us. Shame on Alaska. Shame that forty years later I am hearing the same blather without any backup from politicians. If there is a god judging us on how we treat our most vulnerable populations, Alaska just got an F.