I did my CPE at Boston State Mental Hospital during my theological training; and in 1976 I did a year of CPE at the same hospital, living in the hospital itself and eating my meals with the patients. The hospital gave me a room overlooking the morgue.
Churches are on the front lines of the battle against mental illness. We are the poor person's psychiatrist. CPE enables the clergyperson to understand what he or she can deal with and when to refer to a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Sometimes clergy are even involved with commitments to mental hospitals — sometimes with an involuntary commitment, a very messy business I can attest to.
The most agreed-upon point in the whole debate about gun control and whether to expand background checks is that people with mental problems should not be able to purchase a gun. Here is the rub. There are no specifics being offered that I am aware of concerning how we can improve or increase our treatment of the mentally ill.
How about building more state hospitals?
While I was working as a chaplain and a student at Boston State Hospital, I saw the beginning of what became the shutting down of the state hospitals, including Boston State, and the move to community mental health programs. The problem was that this was often a ploy to save state money, and the resources were never adequate for excellent community mental health in many cities.
The 5,000 acres of Boston State are now condos! And our state hospital in Traverse City is a shopping mall.
Some of my patients were released from the state hospital into community treatment and ended up being murdered on the streets of Boston.
After my year of CPE, I returned to parish ministry in the Grand Rapids area. I started working one night a week in the soup line at the Guiding Light Mission on Division Avenue. More and more of our customers were released patients from Michigan's state hospitals, which were being closed.
The Roman Catholic nun I worked alongside said to me, "Let me break up the fights." They would not slug a nun!
Movies like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The Snake Pit" and "Girl Interrupted" reinforced stereotypes of mental hospitals. I saw at Boston State some awful things — people who had lobotomies (no longer being done when I was living there), patients overmedicated, people who should have been in prison instead of a state hospital, criminals mixed in with defenseless patients, and victims of unspeakable sexual abuse, sometimes by parents.
Today, however, due to a lack of beds in our state hospitals, many mental patients populate our prisons, and many criminals wander our streets, often victimizing the homeless.
By the way, the "homeless problem" accelerated when the wards of our state hospitals were emptied. Few connected the dots back then or even now. Actually, forget the dots — there is a direct correlation between mental illness and homelessness if we as a society are willing to see the truth.
Here are some of the positives I saw at Boston State: There was community, the building of which was part of my job. The food was excellent (great scallops on Fridays). The patients had clean sheets and were safe. Yes, they lived on locked wards with bars on the windows, which movies constantly remind us, but they were not murdered as homeless people. And they had us chaplains to talk to! For the most part, the attendants were kind and compassionate.
The drug problem in our society escalated in the 1970s, at the same time the mental hospitals were shutting down. There was thus less opportunity for treatment — and when you combine the use of drugs with mental illness, you have a lethal combination.
As a society, we have put vast resources into our wars: Vietnam, Iraq, Desert Storm and Afghanistan. We have put a small fraction of that price into mental health treatment. Now many of our vets cannot get adequate mental health treatment, and many are committing suicide. This is an outrageous example of immoral priorities.
So, our politicians are fiddling in Washington as our mental health crisis literally burns, as seen in mass shootings, suicides by vets, a growing drug addiction problem and homelessness.
In 2014 and 2016, I will be paying close attention to how our politicians voted on background checks for purchasing guns, but I will be paying even closer attention to where they stand on putting more money into mental health programs.
We could do worse as a society than opening more hospitals for treatment of the mentally ill, hospitals that have the resources to be effective and humane.
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist