Our union of communities, the United States of America, and its branches of government has upheld inalienable rights for many diverse Americans. As the nation grew, it struggled with racism, economic injustices (including imprisonment) and the right to live differently from other people. We care for others. Yet we continue to struggle with old and new prejudices.
One prejudice we still struggle to ameliorate is the stigma associated with the mentally ill. Yes, the mentally ill are very different. They can be noisy, destructive at times and create awkward moments. I know firsthand; I grew up with a developmentally disabled sister who has mental and physical disabilities. My parents kept her at home until the efforts for one child endangered the other children. My three brothers and I all hurt when she entered the state hospital system 50 years ago.
Growing up with Donna was awkward at church, restaurants and most other places. People stared. My mom made our presence pleasant by somehow keeping us children active with Donna. Later in life, I would visit Donna at one of many state or private facilities and give her a day of freedom at a restaurant, cafe or even fast food. People still stared. Yes, mental illness takes much getting used to. A lot.
Recently, an issue seared parts of my community about preventing a mental health facility to be built near a school. Would you allow or deny the placement of a secure facility in your town? If so, how far away on the outskirts? Next to the jail or another marginal facility? Do you care to allow treatment of the mentally ill, like other illnesses, within the reach of other medical services or should mental treatment centers be in specialized buildings or locations?
Have you seen the joy from competitors in the Special Olympics, a rewarding activity promulgated by the late Rose Kennedy? Have you known of a relative or another person described as “a little off,” “short a sandwich,” or just “whacked” and kept away from others, or put in “a home”? Some people still publicly joke about the mentally ill. But what if it was your relative, sibling, parent or another acquaintance?
The critical question: how much does the humor and hiding of mental illness, perhaps the preservation of the stigma, prevent the mentally ill from healing and immersing with the community? As civil servants, we can make a difference if we care.
Submitted by Geoff McLennan