by Jack Bragen
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]aving been involved in the outpatient mental health treatment system for more than 30 years, I have had a chance to observe the outcomes of a number of people over a period of decades. I have seen a troubling pattern of shortened lives, ruined health and damaged and disabled minds.
For someone who begins experiencing mental health issues in his or her young adulthood, employment is like the Holy Grail. However, at some point in a mentally disabled person’s progression, it is likely that employment efforts will go out the window.
Persons diagnosed with mental illnesses have the cards stacked against them if they would like to work and make a living, as they see other, unimpaired people doing. Managers of companies have a tendency not to hire a mentally ill person unless it is for a job emptying the trash.
Even the Americans with Disabilities Act may not afford much protection. I once saw on a business website that ADA cases where there is mental illness involved are generally dismissed. Thus, there is no legal mandate for hiring someone with mental health issues. Most employers are not going to take a chance on us.
Furthermore, a college education is generally a prerequisite for decent jobs or careers. Since people with mental illness may become ill in their late teens or early twenties, they often will be unable to complete their college education.
The serious side-effects of medications are another factor mentally ill people are up against. The effects of medication over a period of years or even decades will often leave a person unable to work in a physical job.
Thus, in a mentally ill person’s life, at some point they may have to throw in the towel concerning employment. And then they are forced to live on a fixed income, and are likely to be forced to live in an institutional-type housing situation.
And yet, at the same time, individuals, as well as society as a whole, have a tendency to punish us for not having a job. Examples of this include the social discrimination we experience. Another example includes the commonly held expectation that we remain poor.
A counselor once commented on my nice shirt, implicitly questioning where I got the money for it. Another person in a position of authority asked me how I was able to afford cigarettes. In reality, my parents and my wife’s parents help us with some of our expenses which are not related to food and shelter. In addition, I am responsible with the meager amount of money I have.
But I had to ask myself what other group of people in our society would be questioned so closely about possessing a shirt or cigarettes.
People Seem to Disappear
I have seen my mentally ill peers deteriorate over time. In some instances, they seem to disappear and never return. This is analogous to becoming an “unperson” in George Orwell’s novel, 1984.
In other instances, when I’ve caught a glimpse of someone 10 or 20 years after I first saw that person, I often find to my horror that such a person has become crippled or badly deteriorated physically — usually due to their medication, or due to other harsh factors that a mentally ill person has to undergo.
In my case, I have needed to put out a lot of effort against the tendency to lose ground both physically and mentally. I have developed severe agoraphobia, I have gained an unhealthy amount of weight, and I am oversensitive to the effects of stress. Still, in my case, I am better off than a number of people with mental illness, even though I continue to have a lot of problems.
Poor Housing and Poor Health
Due to cuts in benefits, mentally ill people must often live under somewhat harsh conditions in our older age. We may only be able to afford the most undesirable of housing situations.
We are likely to have to get by without a car. Since we are forced to rely on the bus system for our daily transportation, we must be prepared to withstand the effects of the weather because, at least in Contra Costa County, wait times for buses are frequently an hour or longer.
I have seen the effects on people of drug-induced diabetes over time. Frequently, such a person must wear a dressing on their feet and cannot wear regular shoes. They may appear obviously unhealthy, may have lost a number of teeth, and may have trouble performing even the simplest of tasks due to their physical impairment.
Many people with mental illness who may have once had a normal or even above-average I.Q. have lost a lot of ground mentally. Mental health treatment practitioners with their condescension tend to automatically assume that they are mentally superior to those they treat.
This perception becomes prophetic when, due to the effects of the illness and the medication, a mentally ill person may eventually become as mentally impaired as treatment practitioners assume we are. Plus, if practitioners are able to convince us that we are unintelligent, the mind tends to follow this rule and mental impairment is induced by power of suggestion.
The mental health treatment system has a long history of subjecting mental health consumers to hazardous treatments such as electroshock therapy and antipsychotic drugs that have extremely damaging long-term effects on the mind and body. Every few years, powerful new neuroleptic drugs are prescribed before the full range of their mind-damaging side effects are fully known.
Powerful Drug Lobbies
In many cases, the powerful corporate lobbying efforts of psychiatric drug companies have convinced the medical establishment and the FDA to look the other way while they essentially experiment on mentally disabled people without our knowledge or consent. This is the moral equivalent of what was done with the Tuskegee airmen.
When people are diagnosed with mental illness, whether it has some basis in fact or not, they are branded for a lifetime of misery — and sometimes it is a short lifetime. Despite mental health practitioners and others insisting that we can’t do anything, it is important that we remain determined to do something in our lives that serves our own best interests, and gives us a better chance to survive.