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  State Of Disgrace © 2000 Bob Darby

A friend of mine recently tried to save somebody. The endangered man was delusional and hallucinating but denied that he was ill and had quit taking his anti-psychotic medication. He wandered in and out of my friend's house and would sometimes not return for days. Late one night he was found playing with fire in the kitchen with all the lights turned off.
His parents had done everything they could, but public
health services in their state were severely limited. Psychiatrists charge upwards of $200 an hour; hospitals start at $1,300 a day; and their son was uninsured and his family is not rich. When he announced that he wanted to live with friends in Georgia, his exhausted parents consented in the hope that he might find help in Atlanta that he couldn't get in New Hampshire.
But our State of Disgrace offers about the same as New
Hampshire. Taken to the Psychiatric Ward of Grady Hospital , the young man was denied admission because the doctor didn't think he posed a "sufficient danger" to himself or others. The admission shrink did acknowledge that the client was psychotic but wandering off into the cold without a jacket for three days and returning to play with fire on the kitchen stove at three in the morning wasn't quite enough to get him a bed on Grady's Psych Ward.
Georgia Regional Hospital wouldn't admit him either. When my friend pleaded that he couldn't permanently keep this unmedicated sick man in his home, the doctors shrugged their shoulders and said, "That's not our responsibility." A few days later he walked out of the house and disappeared.

When the Georgia Mental Health Institute (GHMI) closed in June of 1998, the Department of Human Resources (DHR) said that the money saved would be spent on community mental health services. A year later, the Atlanta Constitution reported that state funding for mental health services had been cut by $30 million. Tax revenue saved by shutting down public health facilities like GHMI is now being spent instead on new jails and prisons. As a consequence, Georgia incarcerates more than one percent of its entire adult population. Georgia's mentally ill homeless are now being joined in the steets by other impoverished sick people with diseases like AIDS, cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis. {The DHR's abandonment of the mentally ill should have been a warning of such previously unthinkable things to come.} The public silence over this moral evil grows louder and more obscene with every passing day.

Apologists for the DHR and its confederate the Georgia Mental Health Association (GHMA) publicly congratulate themselves for their "deinstitutionalization" of the mentally ill. While the people they are supposed to be serving are abandoned on the street, the DHR and the GMHA pretend there's no crisis and trivialize the mentally ill by calling them "consumers." Those who lied to us about GHMI's closure are now peddling the fiction that homelessness is a chosen "lifestyle" instead of the failure of our society to meet a fundamental standard of decency. The main cause for homelessness is not choice or even unemployment. It is disability. Solving the problem means re-opening hospitals and funding residency group homes.

A Harvard study estimates that one third of our nation's
homeless are mentally ill. Thousands of sick people live on the streets of Atlanta and millions more in other cities of the United States. However hard we may try to look the other way, mental illness is a permanent fact of life. About three percent of all humanity has some form of diagnosable mental illness, and an estimated 5.5 million Americans are acutely afflicted with psychosis at any given time. This is a universal affliction from which no society is immune. One in four of us will be treated for a mental illness at least once in our lifetimes.

Abandoning sick people to the streets is a cold-blooded crime. Some will find refuge behind bars, but jail is not a merciful form of treatment for the mentally ill. The young man my friend was trying to rescue was arrested while trying to break into an empty house one freezing winter night in late 1999. At last report, he's still in jail. Mercy in our State of Disgrace is only for those "consumers" with the money to buy it. All others must live and die on the streets or languish away in jail.

RESOURCES: "Critics Scold Fulton's Mental Health Layoffs, Cutbacks." Atlanta Constitution, March 31, 1999. "Mental Health Strides and a Long Way to Go," Atlanta Constitution, December 14, 1999. "Why Are There So Many Homeless Mentally Ill?" August, 1989. Stop the Madness," The Wall Street Journal, July l8, 1997. The Sentencing Project <http://www.sentencingproject. org>

Bob Darby is the co-founder of Atlanta Food Not Bombs, has done graduate work in psychology and is a former employee of Georgia Regional Hospital. back