Sometimes the journalist comes to the story; sometimes the story comes to the journalist. This time the story came to Pete Earley, and it wasn't pretty. "Crazy" is one of the kinder words Earley could have used to describe what he found in his investigation of the intersection of the mentally ill with the American criminal justice system. Earley's own discovery of the failed social system began for him the way it began for many of us: when s family member’s psychosis made a seemingly inevitable collision with the police.
The difference between Pete Earley and most of the rest of us is that he is a former Washington Post reporter, who is able not only to articulate his own experience but to observe, probe and report on the experience of others. Earley uses his head and heart to collate into comprehensive form the facts and figures that show that his experiences, and that of his son, were the norm, not deviations from it. The result of Earley’s personal experience and his subsequent research is the kind of account which I believe many more caring people need to comprehend if anything is ever to change for the better in our social systems, or lack thereof, for dealing with mental illness. .
Earley's book, Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, consists of three separate but interwoven strands: the story of his son's experience of criminal justice for the mentally ill, accounts of mentally ill individuals in Miami whose lives Earley documents, and research that reveals the systemic mistreatment of the mentally ill, sadly done in the name of individual rights. Not to give away details better told by Earley than me, this mistreatment includes mentally ill prisoners being kept naked in practically refrigerated cells while awaiting trial. Other mentally ill prisoners cycle through a Kafkaesque procedure in which after a court hearing they are sent to a mental hospital to be made "competent to stand trial." There they are usually compelled to take medication to treat their illness, but then are returned to jail where they are not, often held there long enough to decompensate so that they are no longer "competent to stand trial." So, back they go to the mental hospital. This circle of futility may spin multiple times and last for months, even years.
Many of us may know the answer to the unfortunately popular (in the circles in which I travel) trivia question: "What institution in the United States houses the most people with mental illness?" (Answer: the Los Angeles County Jail.) That sounds bad, but what many of us haven't known is how bad jail conditions really are for those individuals who happen to be afflicted with the particular diseases of the brain called mental illness. Earley's own story gives a sample of some of the personal anguish that family members and loved ones experience, while the people whose lives he chronicles show that his experience was neither unique nor extreme. Earley puts faces on the facts and souls behind the statistics that are painful enough when they are anonymous. He shows that the systematic mistreatment he documents is not at all the exception but the rule -- and what a sad set of rules they are.
Crazy is not a book for the faint of heart, and definitely not for those whose parents, children, brothers or sisters are themselves mentally ill, and whose experiences have left them currently in serious emotional pain. For those who can read it, they should. While Earley's accounts are graphic, I see no evidence that he exaggerates anything that he has seen. Nevertheless, the reality he reports is as cold and hard as the cells that some of those with mental illness occupy. While reading the book will be particularly painful for anyone with a heart, and deeply distressing for anyone with brain, it will be enlightening for anyone with eyes to see what an inhumane system we have created, and allow to continue, "for" those with mental illness.
In the end, Crazy is a convincing plea that we change the way we deal with the mentally ill who find themselves in our criminal justice system, for their sakes and for ours as well.
Those who wish to work for a better, fairer and more humane mental health system in North Carolina are invited to listen and talk to our legislators at the Annual Legislative Breakfast for Mental Health, which will feature writer Lee Smith at the Friday Center across from Meadowmont in Chapel Hill on Saturday, January 13, 2007 from 9:00 am - 11:30 am.
Gary D. Gaddy facilitates a local class as part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Family-to-Family program, a 12-week course for the family members of individuals with serious mental illness. If you have a family member with mental illness, go to NAMI.ORG to learn more about this highly successful course.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald, January 11, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy