Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Health Care or Prisons

As we look back on the shooting in Arizona, one of the questions that comes up is that of how could this act have been prevented.  And I have to admit, as cold as it is where I am, I appreciate the hot air.  But what it comes down to is something nobody really wants to do.  We need to put a great deal of effort, read, money, into mental health care.

Since Ronald Reagan saved us from ourselves by cutting budgets for psychiatric hospitals, throwing people with chronic mental illness on the streets, we alternate between trying to find bandages that won't cost much and ignoring the problem entirely, until the next crazed individual commits a violent act that cannot be ignored.

Understand, most of those psychiatric hospitals didn't work either.  Because they were bandages, albeit very large ones, as well.   After we found out that hosing people down and shocking them to within an inch of their lives didn't work, we found drugs.  And some drugs in some cases worked miracles, allowing people to return to homes and communities and live productive lives.  But in many cases drugs at best created compliance, and you know what?  That was good enough for us.

Because mental health is expensive.

Mental health requires something we no longer value in this country:  people.

It begins with a family that can afford good health care for their children.  And schools with low teacher to student ratios and qualified educators that are paid appropriately for the important job that they do, with comfortable and adequately heated buildings, nutritious lunches, stimulating and up-to-date instructional material and plans.  And parents to come home to, that are not working so many jobs for so little income that they are either not present or not emotionally available.

And since none of us is emotionally invulnerable, we need people there for when we slip.  Who these days has a family member not so mired in their own emotional crises that they will open their arms when a person is in need?  If you are not that fortunate, you are already among those at risk.

And yet we are fighting about whether or not health care should be provided to every individual in the country.  We are debating whether the unemployed should be entitled to subsistence funds until their luck and the economy turns around.  We are arguing about whether our moms and dads should have to work until they die, or simply break down.

So, if we can't even agree that people trying to function within society deserve to be fed, housed, and educated, and taken care of when they are sick, where does that leave the poor and poorly educated, those who lack the skills or support systems to help the family member with the psychiatric illness?

We have decided long ago to throw our limited resources at prisons rather than mental health care.  I fear that today's debate will end the same way.


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