A few months before I was born, my parents were burned out of their apartment on a bitter winter night. The private psychiatric hospital where my father interned was gracious enough to offer my parents temporary housing.
My first home was a mental hospital.
A decade later in another town, I sometimes
waited in the car while my father saw patients at the state hospital. Whenever the weather allowed there would be hundreds of patients milling around talking to themselves or their peers, smoking cigarettes, and feeding the stray cats that gravitated to them. They seemed to be not much different than me.
My father moved on to work in community mental health, a new concept. The old asylums opened their doors and we would take care of our mentally ill in our communities. A noble idea, but the funding never matched the promise. The appearance of homeless people on the streets seemed to coincide with the downsizing of the state hospitals.
Today, I work in a state prison, one of three on the grounds of the state hospital where I waited in the car for my father. The state hospital remains, a tiny remnant of what is was when I was a boy. My prison is also small, built to treat our state’s most seriously mentally ill offenders. It is expensive to operate, funds are strapped, and the demand is overwhelming. But I know the state means well; I love my work, I make a good living, I have wonderful supervisors and work with dedicated nurses, clinicians, and correctional officers who care enough to make a difference, knowing that most of our offenders will be paroled and back out on the street.
I can’t help but think that forty-five years ago that many of our offenders would not have been felons, but patients living in a state hospital, and that many of them might have never committed their crimes. Many of our offenders were homeless before they went to jail and then prison, and likely will be homeless again when they are released, inevitably running amok on the street, coming back to us again, because the resources to care for them are so limited.
Nobody can convince me that the costs of crime, victimization, and incarceration are less than early intervention and hospitalization. I’m sure that the old hospitals were awful, but they provided a roof and bed, meals, medication and some degree of treatment.
My dream, or more accurately, my simplistic
fantasy is that I will encounter some philanthropist who will say “let’s reinvent the old asylum, and provide housing, meals, medication and treatment to anyone who is ill, as long as they need it!”.
Meanwhile, I will continue to help by offering a few civil, courteous words, maybe some medicine, help with a medical concern, intervention in a crisis, or just a little of my time to listen.
I’m George Scott, a nurse. My father was a psychiatrist. And now I share not only his name, but his passion as well, hoping to make a difference in the lives of our mentally ill.
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