The news that Brattleboro Memorial Hospital was sanctioned by the Vermont Department of Licensing and Protection was distressing to any human being with a heart beat.
And this is not because any one person in the emergency room purposefully did anything wrong or officers with the Brattleboro Police Department over-reacted when called to help with a mentally ill patient. While the incident wasn't handled in a manner that preserved the dignity of the patient, the fault lies not with any health care individual or police officer, but with the nation as a whole and our prejudices when it comes to mentally ill people.
The simple fact is, our health care professionals in the emergency room already have their hands full with the day-to-day crises that affect all of us and with the overwhelming burden of opioid-related incidents that end up in the hospital. And law enforcement officers are supposed to be protecting us from criminals and others who would take advantage of our good natures or our failure to lock our front doors; they are not social workers.
But more and more, doctors, nurses, orderlies and police officers are being called upon to handle mental health emergencies and we are not giving them the tools and training necessary to help them accomplish this task. Yes, valiant efforts are being made to reach out across professions to unify how they respond to these incidents, and those health care professionals and law enforcement officers who are working overtime to develop policies, practices and procedures are to be commended. If we are going to ask these fine people to respond to mental health crises, we also must promise to give them the resources necessary, and, yes, it costs money.
In a larger sense, while these professionals deserve our support, the real issue here is we simply don't provide enough resources to care for our friends, family members and neighbors who are suffering from acute mental illness. Someone who needs psychiatric help can spend days and even weeks in a hospital emergency room awaiting space at a facility such as the Brattleboro Retreat.
And too many of the mentally ill are ending up in jail where they are treated like criminals rather than ill people who exhibit aggressive or violent behaviors. It has been estimated that about 50 percent of the people behind bars in America today suffer from some sort of mental illness. Instead of getting them the help they need, corrections officers respond as they would with any dangerous criminal — restraints, solitary confinement and pepper spray and stun guns.
According to the ACLU, "The painful truth is that our prisons and jails currently are full of people with serious and persistent mental illnesses. Even those individuals who enter correctional facilities without mental illness are very likely to leave with PTSD, trauma, social anxiety and depression." We should all be ashamed.
According to the New Yorker's Eyal Press, in the late 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled, in O'Connor v. Donaldson, that a Florida man named Kenneth Donaldson had been kept against his will in a state psychiatric hospital for nearly 15 years. "The ruling added momentum to a nationwide campaign to 'deinstitutionalize' the mentally ill. ... During the next two decades, states across the country shut down such facilities ... But instead of funding more humane modes of treatment — such as community mental-health centers that could help patients live independently — many states left the mentally ill to their own devices. Often, highly unstable people ended up on the streets, abusing drugs and committing crimes, which led them into the prison system."
And now, as Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald told VTDigger, "There's a breakdown in the system," which affects health care professionals and police and correctional officers.
One solution is to reduce mass incarceration, but as with the 1970s and into the 1980s when mental health facilities were closed, something needs to replace jailing our mentally ill. We need to recognize the everyday realities of those living with mental illness — and their families — and we need to find the resources necessary to help them survive and thrive. If we are unwilling to care for the most vulnerable in our society, it costs us more in the long run and leaves us all with a hole in our hearts that can't be filled with hollow talk and casual indifference.