We have an underclass in Arizona – our chronically mentally ill, most of whom suffer from schizophrenia. Society treats this sliver of people with serious mental illness just as cruelly and inhumanely as the lepers of antiquity or the untouchables of India. Many of these persons have no shelter, no bed, no toilet, no shower or bathtub, no running water, no electricity, and no reliable access to food, clean water, or medical care unless they are in jail.
Our public mental health care system is organized for and provides exemplary care for the 90% of Seriously Mentally Ill (“SMI”) persons who have insight into their illness and are mostly compliant with treatment. But, some SMI persons are chronic, i.e., they are so ill they believe the voices in their heads and their delusions are real, they suffer anosognosia (inability to recognize one’s clinically evident mental illness). They are mostly non-compliant with treatment. So, they recycle, repeatedly, through treatment programs, emergency rooms, hospitals, the streets, and jails in a hellish existence. Their physical and mental health deteriorates as their families abandon them or become exhausted, struggling to get care for them, and are blocked at every turn.
This underclass results from myths about mental illness, which permeate much of our public mental health care system and block chronically mentally persons from desperately needed care. As the father of a chronically mentally ill adult, I personally have been told each of the comments paraphrased in quotes below:
- Recovery myth: “All persons with SMI can recover and lead a normal life.” In reality, chronic mental illness is more like diabetes and can be managed but rarely, if ever, cured.
- Compliance myth: “All persons with SMI can ‘recover’ by complying with treatment in short-term residential programs, community living programs or independent living with ‘wrap-around’ services, combined, as needed, with assertive community treatment (‘ACT’) and occasional involuntary treatment (i.e., injections and short-term hospitalizations), regardless of the severity of their illness.” “He fails to recover because he chooses not to comply with our treatment protocols and rules, so he cannot continue in our treatment program.” The most severely ill are denied treatment because of the severity of their illness.
- Acuity myth: “SMI does not impair her ability to make good decisions and is no excuse for her inappropriate behavior.” In reality, schizophrenia is a physiological impairment of the brain which does affect judgment and behavior.
- Fairness myth: “All adults with SMI should be allowed to make their own medical decisions, to refuse treatment, to choose homelessness and never should be subjected to long-term involuntary care, regardless of the severity of their illness.” “Removing such liberty is unfair discrimination against the mentally ill.”
- Substance use myth: “It’s just illicit drugs.” ”We cannot treat his mental illness until he overcomes his substance use problem.” In reality, 75% of SMI persons who are chronically afflicted self-medicate with illicit substances for temporary relief from painful symptoms at some point in their life, which exacerbates their illness.
These myths coalesce into an unconscious, sometimes deliberate, and often-denied culture of blocking chronically-afflicted persons from care because “he won’t comply”; “he uses drugs”; or, “he’s an adult and makes his own choices.” In reality, she thinks the voices and delusions are real, and hence she cannot participate consistently in the treatment offered to the other 90% of SMI persons who have insight. She needs a caring system free of these myths, more flexible, more attuned to her individual needs, and more accountable to the public. And, she might even need long-term involuntary treatment, opponents of which sincerely believe and use these myths to block expansion of such treatment, unwittingly keeping this underclass in our streets and jails.
Dick Dunseath, father of a chronically mentally ill adult son / Carefree, Arizona
Founding member of ACMI board