"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again." Anyone who has watched a loved one lose control of their mental processes can sympathize with this top-heavy character from nursery rhymes; the big head full of ideas that somehow loses its balance and falls. Despite the frantic efforts of friends and family, things may never be the same.
Not long ago, a diagnosis of mental illness was equated with a life sentence in the state hospital. Idaho's State Hospital South cemetery in Blackfoot has unmarked graves dating from 1886 to 1982 of 1,500 patients who never made it home. These were people whose thinking and behaviors made them unfit for society—a society that, by the way, saw fit to wreak all sorts of havoc including two global conflicts culminating in a shaky truce made possible only by mutually assured destruction. Funny the whole world didn't suffer a nervous breakdown.
In recent decades, the snake-pit asylums have all but been emptied due to advances in neuroscience and medical treatments for the mentally ill. Yet the stigma of admitting to a mental disorder still persists. One well-founded fear is that the cost of treatment is rarely covered by standard medical insurance policies. This could change early this year when a 15-year-long struggle by mental health advocates is expected to pass congress, mandating coverage for mental illnesses (brain disorders) alongside the long list of other physical illnesses already covered by insurers.
The Wood River Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has lobbied strongly in the Idaho Legislature for many of those years, providing police training, peer to peer counseling, support groups and education for families affected by mental illness. Idaho was recently ranked 49th in the nation for mental health spending, despite the fact that mental health professionals can now succeed where all the king's horses and all the king's men failed, returning many of the most fragile-minded among us back to society.
The notion of granting special treatment to those with emotional and thinking disorders strikes at the very heart of our beliefs about personal responsibility. "I held down a job at the factory while raising four kids. Why couldn't she?" or "I made it through Desert Storm without medical leave. What's his problem?" The Soviets once used mental asylums as gulags to house political prisoners.
Is it possible that the crazy among us might at times reflect the deeper madness of history itself? Who's to say that one person's distractedness and delusions don't represent a higher cluelessness to which we might all one day evolve? Perhaps the rationales of psychotherapy and of politics are merely provisional camps along the highways of human imagination and possibility.
Thousands of NAMI members nationwide consist largely of former and current mental health patients or "consumers" of mental health services. They are advocates, teachers, family members, lawyers, and many psychiatrists, all attending to current events relating to mental health. NAMI advocates for increased patient involvement and patient choice with regard to mental health treatments, returning to them the possibility of personal responsibility. Because NAMI members usually know from first-hand experience the ravages of brain disorders and the miracle of a return to sanity, they are perhaps best suited to distinguish between a philosophical position and a neurological condition. Gone are the days when officials could simply round up all the eccentrics. This year, Congress will be listening to what they have to say. You may be surprised to learn who they are.