Some of the best people I’ve met were in institutions


 

Every day I arrive at the building where I work. I enter the lobby and hand my keys over to someone behind a desk and place my items on a table to be searched. Generally this consists of my iPad, pager and name badge. Maybe a lunch, never a purse. I then kick off my shoes and attempt to pass the metal detector without setting it off. I then gather my things and head to a door which is opened by someone behind a panel of plexiglass. When that door closes behind me, the next door opens. I gather my key ring and swipe card and make my way down the hall. I pass a large room enclosed by plexiglass and maybe see people waiting for a doctor’s appointment or having shackles put on to prepare for transport to an appointment outside of the building, the next two doors are again opened by the person behind that plexiglass and I swipe my card to enter the staircase. At the top of the stirs I swipe my card again to be let out of
the staircase and walk to my office.

Hearing this you may assume that I work in a prison or jail. However, I don’t. I work in a maximum security forensic facility for the mentally ill. All the people I work with are mentally ill and have also committed some kind of crime. This ranges from particularly heinous and grisly crimes to things as benign as forging checks or stealing a ginger ale from a convenience store. All the individuals are here to either be evaluated for competency to stand trial, have been found incompetent to stand trial, or are not guilty be reason of insanity. I work with people who you would typically not want to sit next to on the bus, or who may be hanging out on the sidewalks of your community. Many have been failed by the mental health system. They were not perceived as a risk or may have circumvented the procedures in place to maintain them on their medications or supervise them. Many of them also have a history of drug or alcohol use.

There are two misconceptions I want to address about the people I work with. The first is that they are “getting off easy.” While some times this may be true because they may do less time in a hospital than they would have in prison, but most of the time it’s not true. Many of them actually spend more time in the hospital. I’ve had individuals tell me that they wish they had just plead guilty and done the time because they would be out already. There is no release date for our people. They don’t have a date that they can look forward to getting out of the hospital like someone in the prison system would. Many times if the crime is particularly violent the judge gives the “over my dead body” ruling that as long as they are on the bench that person will not be released. It is also more difficult than you think to fake an insanity defense. We have pretty accurate testing to ensure that those folks are weeded out.

Another inaccurate thought is that these people are guilty and should be punished. This is not necessarily so. I like to give this example when someone asks me about my job. Let’s pretend you know for a fact that your next door neighbor is kidnapping and torturing women in his house. You’ve heard them screaming and calling for help. You’ve called the police and told all your family and friends and they say there’s nothing they can do and that there’s nothing going on, yet you still hear them calling for you to save them. Most of us would feel compelled to do something. This is what it’s like. What is going on in their head is so real to them that they have to get involved. They can’t determine that this is not true. They act based on their own skewed sense of reality. They act because of their illness.

In general, society does not recognize mental illness as being an illness like diabetes or heart disease. Approximately 25% of people in the US have a mental illness. Compare that with 41% of Americans who will have some type of cancer in their lifetime, 8% of people who will have diabetes and 12% of Americans who will have heart disease. Many times the only time we hear about mental illness in the news is when a mentally ill person does something to get into trouble. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear about treatment and support? Only about 25% of people with mental illness feel like they have good supports from family and friends. It’s time we took care of those around us who are sick before they end up hanging out with me every day!

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Laura Siegel
    Nov 14, 2011 @ 20:15:34

    Great blog Mert. My brother is mentally ill and was finally saved by a wonderful social worker and a great new drug. He’s been leading a pretty good life for about 30 years now–but those first 30 years before help where really hell for our family. A blog about that will be forthcoming. Well said.

    Reply

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