Mental Healthcare: Will Our Leaders Please Get Serious?

As I enjoyed another basketball game between Oklahoma University and Oklahoma State University this weekend, I was reminded how insignificant those sporting events really are in the greater scheme of my life. But being a die-hard Sooner fan, I have watched and attended countless battles in what is commonly referenced - and it was again by these television announcers - as the Bedlam series, adopted years ago from a sportswriters description of one of their games.

Dictionaries use terms such as confusion or madhouse to define bedlam, whose origin was a reference to the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, formerly an insane asylum in London. I suppose it is somewhat callous that those of us who don't suffer from what medical professionals would classify as mental illness will so casually adopt for our entertainment a reference that was a tragic reality for so many.

There was an article published this past week in Mother Jones about the pending execution of Andre Thomas, a young man who was a school classmate of my kids, but who now sits on death row in Texas. I was practicing law in Sherman, Texas at the time that Andre committed these gruesome murders of his family in that community. I, like most, remember the Andre Thomas case for one particular reason if no other: while in jail pending trial, Andre reached his fingers into his right eye socket and removed his own eye. Although the judge and jury would decide otherwise, I remember thinking at the time that removing ones own eye is perhaps the most compelling evidence of presumed insanity that I had ever heard of.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 5.8 percent of the adult population of the United States suffers from a seriously debilitating mental illness. A search of their website and those of similar organizations dedicated to the care and treatment of mental health disorders, reveals a lack of finite definition as to what actually constitutes a treatable mental illness. Suffice it to say, however, it is a recognized area of healthcare that does exist and deserves a united effort at management and treatment.

This is why I am pleased to see bipartisan support for mental health care, an example being the Mental Health First Aid Act introduced by both Republican and Democratic senators. Much of the effort comes in the wake of Sandy Hook, and some are no doubt done in response to public pressure for action, as well as in compromise for more meaningful gun regulation. Regardless of how we get there, we must arrive at well-funded legislation that will make a difference in the lives of those in need.

It really is a shame that our compassion is united only in reaction to public outcries from some of our darkest hours - Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson. But our calling for increased mental health evaluation and treatment only as a response to these tragedies is in itself indicative of our misunderstanding the very nature of mental health illnesses.

We must appreciate that only a very small percentage of the mentally ill will act out violently against others, the vast majority suffering alone and untreated. It is politically easiest to be dismissive of the pain that others endure in silence, when the bedlam exist in the dark abyss of some unfortunate psyche. Reality is that our politicians - the majority of whom kowtow to the demands of the insurance industry that will oversee mental healthcare costs in most instances - will act only in response to the illness symptomatically manifesting itself in the most macabre of displays.

I applaud any serious effort to recognize the scope of mental health disorders and the need of those professionals to receive funding for their treatment of the same. The first step toward meaningful reform will be a respect for the illnesses. For example, since the judge and jury decided he did not meet the definition of criminally insane, Andre Thomas would spend three years in the normal death row facility, often babbling as he did pretrial about biblical influences via the voices in his head, his struggles with the Antichrist. Much like our politicians, it is fair for us to assume that Texas prison officials needed more proof that Andre required mental healthcare, more than the brutality of his crimes, his incessant ramblings, his self-mutilation. So, Andre was moved to the State of Texas psychiatric unit only after he removed his left eye, this time opting to digest the same so that the government couldn't put it back in and read his thoughts, something Andre says he fears since his failing to eat the first eye.

At first sign, we treat fractures with a cast so that they can heal and not worsen; a sneeze with antibiotics so that it doesn't become pneumonia. We can see infections in wound cultures, and head them off before they spread. Detecting and treating illnesses are routine and simplistic, with the apparent exception being mental illnesses. We don't see them, so we don't treat them, at least not until it is too late.

There are too many recent events where as a society we have become painfully aware of the effects of the worst-case mental illnesses playing out. The number of these cases, however, must pale in comparison to those that never publically manifest themselves, yet they are illnesses deserving of our respect. We can no longer accept a cynical approach. We must demand more, and hold our politicians accountable if they fail to adequately answer the call.

Born in Sherman, Texas, David Kennedy served as a deacon chairman and elder of a Southern Baptist church, before moving on to establish a non-denominational church, the first church ever to be permitted to hold its regular religious services in the local public schools. He is the author of You Voted For Who? And You Call Yourself A Christian?, and has been interviewed by multiple conservative and liberal broadcast media on issues addressing the interaction of politics and religion.

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