We’re having the wrong conversation about mental health

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Psychiatrist and documentarian, Kenneth Paul Rosenberg Photo courtesy of Hank Gans.

America’s mental health crisis is rooted in recent history that led not only to inadequate facilities and resources for those with illnesses, but also to a lack of understanding on a broader scale about the nature of the health issues. Another urgent problem inextricably linked to mental health is homelessness given that not only do many people with psychological illnesses end up homeless due to a lack of options and resources, but that the conditions of living without adequate or any housing aggravate any mental health issues already present.

Psychiatrist and documentarian Kenneth Paul Rosenberg delves into these urgent topics in his latest book, “Bedlam: An Intimate Journey Into America's Mental Health Crisis” where he takes an objective look at the problem while interlacing the personal story of a nationwide system that failed his own sister, and includes the stories of others who’ve faced similar struggles. Rosenberg, who is the featured guest on the most recent episode of Scheer Intelligence , explains that part of the misguided drive behind closing down mental hospitals in the 20th century had to do with the idea that these institutions infringed on citizens’ civil liberties.

“[In my book] I talk about a very brave family who spoke to me, Norm and Judy Ornstein, who unfortunately lost a son to serious mental illness,” says Rosenberg on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence. “Judy said it better than anyone I've ever met. She said, ‘My son died with his civil liberties intact.’ He was able to live a life that was really substandard by any measure, where he was really living with his mental illness.

“I would have to say for my own sister,” the psychiatrist adds, “that it was very, very hard to get her treatment. And it's very, very hard to keep someone more than three days or four days without a court order, without a conservatorship. And those things are changing. And at the same time, we must safeguard our personal autonomy, we must safeguard people’s civil liberties.”

Another factor was the discovery and popularization of psychiatric drugs that led many to believe hospitals and other facilities would become redundant.

“The thing that informed the whole deinstitutionalization,” says Scheer, “was that there were these new magic drugs---I’m not talking about illegal drugs, I'm talking about prescription drugs---that could basically solve the problem. And one of the revelations in your book is not only that the first generation of those drugs didn't work very well---aside from the fact that you couldn't get people to take them on a regular basis, but they just were not the panacea that had been predicted.

“There is no magic bullet of drugs for dealing with serious mental illness,” Scheer concludes in conversation with Rosenberg about his book.

There is, however, one crucial thing, in tandem with other changes to laws and increased medical research, that the psychiatrist profoundly believes will change the course of this terrible episode in American history in which we've turned our most vulnerable members quite literally onto the streets.

“We have to realize that this is not someone else's problem,” says Rosenberg. “The most important thing we have to do is have a conversation. … This is our problem that we have to confront. And I think the way to do it, trite as it sounds, is to have a conversation that we have not been having. And have it be a conversation not about the other, but about ourselves.”

Rosenberg also worked with producer Peter Miller to create a documentary series based on his book, also titled "Bedlam," which will air on PBS in April. Below is a clip about the upcoming series.

Listen to the full discussion between Rosenberg and Scheer about the reasons behind the mental health crisis plaguing the U.S. as well as a possible path forward for the country.



Joshua Scheer