The use of psychiatric medication to treat mental illness is hardly a new concept. When the first drugs were invented that reputedly alleviated the symptoms of psychosis, it brought about great changes in the way mentally ill people were treated.
This is so in spite of the fact that persons with mental illness have been subjected to a great deal of mistreatment and abuse in the context of psychiatric treatment.
Before the first medications were developed, lobotomies were used on the most difficult cases. Psychiatrists believed that this surgery, which involved destroying the brain’s frontal lobes, often was the only thing that could help troubled people.
A lot of electroshock treatment was used as well, only this was done in a far less humane manner compared to what is done today. If you want to call electroconvulsive therapy cruel, consider that, in the past, much higher levels of current were used.
Even with modern treatments being available, and with modern knowledge in the field of psychiatry, senseless cruelty continued to be perpetrated upon persons who suffer from mental health problems.
In my past, I was a patient at Gladman for a relatively short period. There, I was four-pointed, which entails being tied to a table with heavy leather restraints. I was also jailed for a brief period because people didn’t understand that I was ill.
For some psychiatric survivors, it seems like any psychiatric treatment is construed as mistreatment, and there is no tolerance for even the most compassionate-seeming of caregivers.
Many of these former psych patients have died off, either due to age or due to other causes, including health problems induced by their illness or by complications created by psychiatric medications.
Thus, the memory of the cruel mistreatment of the past is waning. And because of that, we might be destined to repeat some of the same mistakes. Today’s mistreatment is, on the face of it, more subtle, but also the new drugs work better at shutting people down, and this could be part of the reason that much of the patients’ rights movement has been subdued.
Part of the mistreatment that currently exists uses economic deprivation as a means of enforcement. People with mental illness generally do not have much money. Thus, we are forced to live in institutional situations, and this entails a lot of restrictions. This also means we are segregated — sequestered from mainstream society. Another aspect of our mistreatment consists of how the general public hates us and is afraid of us. This is promulgated by the portrayal of mentally ill people in the news media.
Mentally ill people are usually good people with bad illnesses. Sure, there are some bad apples; however, bad people exist in all sectors of society. Yet, we have been stereotyped such that people believe that we are capable of violence at any moment, and that we are antisocial, weird, sick and depraved. The public reacts with apprehension, rather than assuming that we are intelligent people. We are believed to be idiots as soon as someone whispers that we are “mentally challenged.”
Thus, many of us do not feel safe unless we are in a setting of outpatient institutionalization, where therapists will assure us that everything is okay, meanwhile pouring medications down our throats, giving us sugary, fatty, high-calorie foods as a reward, and essentially encouraging us to smoke cigarettes. But also, convincing us that we can’t do anything, convincing us that we are subnormal, and often supervising us in a condescending, humiliating manner.
The mistreatment that continues today includes the following: forced medication with stronger substances than were given in the past, effectively shutting down large areas of the mind and knocking a gaping hole in our energy level; economic deprivation, which forces us to live in institutional situations where we are restricted and segregated; redirection of Proposition 63 funds away from consumer-run organizations, and into funding for Laura’s Law, which collaterally tempts counties to cut funding for voluntary programs; misrepresentation in the news media, promoting the myth that all mentally ill people are dangerous and depraved; and social rejection.
While some of this prejudicial treatment may be more subtle than past mistreatment of mentally ill persons, it has the desired effect of protecting society from exposure to people they don’t care to understand or tolerate.
Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.