Upon reading the Jan. 22 article about the closing of the program at Portland’s Shalom House that assists 170 adult mental health clients with daily tasks, I was immediately saddened for these individuals and their families. As I near completion of my master’s degree in public health, I am reminded of why I entered this field: my furious resentment of the lack of effective mental health care in this country, and my deep-rooted knowledge of the harms inflicted by this “system of care.” I live with this knowledge because the mental health care system failed my father, and it took him away from me forever.

He was diagnosed with mental illness in his early 20s, a challenge that was adequately managed through medication for almost a decade. In his late 20s, however, his illness intensified and he was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He struggled immensely with the mind-numbing effects of medications such as lithium, and started taking them more and more inconsistently.

He was institutionalized and forced to receive “treatment” in facilities indistinguishable from prisons, was shuffled from one communal living home to another and relied on a constant rotation of guardians and case managers whose competence varied wildly throughout the years. What followed were endless battles with his illness, his medication and his place (or lack thereof) in life; severe mental illness (and its requisite mind-numbing medication) renders its victims unemployable and purposeless.

This purgatory-like existence was not lost on my father, and one day, he disappeared without a trace. Almost two years later, he was discovered in a parking lot in Connecticut with severe internal bleeding and a blunt-trauma wound to the head. Because of these injuries, he now suffers from dementia-like symptoms that outweigh the effects of his mental illness.

My father was a landscape designer, a farmer, an avid outdoorsman and an animal lover. All of my memories of him include the smell of soil on his clothing and sun on his skin. Today, as a ward of the state of Connecticut, he lives in an overcrowded, decrepit institution with no access to outdoor space.

I could attempt to further describe the environment inside this place, but its atrocities are difficult to communicate through words alone. Instead, I will tell you that this residence is somewhere you would not wish upon your worst enemies, their loved ones or frankly any human being who has ever had a glimpse of another life. I am sharing this story so that the next time you read a headline describing (yet another) failure in the provision of mental health care, you will have an example of the damage that will follow.

The United States has the highest suicide rate among wealthy nations, many of which are attributed to mental illness, and 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness each year. We must begin to address the lack of proper mental health care like the crisis that it truly is.

 


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