Mental patience

“I had no idea,” begins Pete Earley’s Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness—and it quickly becomes apparent that most of us have no true idea of the perilous state of our nation’s mental health system. Unless it forces itself into our families and our homes, most of us avoid any interaction with mental illness.

The One Book One Community program chose Crazy, which was nominated for the nonfiction Pulitzer Prize, as its summer selection, hoping as always that the entire Baton Rouge community would read Crazy and discuss the issues that Earley raises.

When Earley announced his Baton Rouge OBOC appearance, he cited a recent Treatment Advocacy Center study showing that, in Louisiana, there are 4.6 mentally ill people in jail for every one in a hospital. As Earley says in Crazy, “If it could happen to my family, it could happen to yours.”

Earley, an author and former reporter for The Washington Post, was forced to confront mental illness when his son had a psychotic breakdown during his senior year of college. In the following years, his son had several manic episodes but couldn’t get the help that he needed. During one episode, Earley’s son broke into a neighbor’s home to take a bubble bath and was charged with two felonies. Earley’s experience trying to guide his bipolar adult son through the mental health care and legal systems drove him to write this book.

Using his skills as an investigative journalist, and through his personal experiences with his son, Earley discovered that the mentally ill are not just stigmatized, but criminalized. Under our current legal system, they are much more likely to be held without treatment in jails than helped in hospitals, he says.

“No therapy, no jobs, no hope, no recovery. That’s our community-based mental health system,” Earley said to Anderson Cooper when he was interviewed on CNN in 2007 after the Virginia Tech shootings. That incident involved a mentally ill gunman who killed 33 people, including himself.

For research, Earley spent a year inside the Miami-Dade County jail, which he chose because Miami has the largest percentage of mentally ill than any other metropolitan area. Crazy includes the story of Earley’s son, but it focuses on the people Earley met during his investigation—the mentally ill as well as their family members and advocates. He reports on the lack of appropriate treatment both inside the jail and outside in assisted living homes that don’t meet basic standards but still receive federal assistance. Crazy offers compelling stories of the mentally ill being shuttled back and forth, never receiving proper treatment.

“Why do we think that the mind can’t get sick just like the heart can get sick?” he asked at a recent National Alliance on Mental Illness conference. “We are wasting millions of dollars in this country on programs that don’t work. We know how to help most people with severe mental illness. It’s a question of wanting to do it or having the money to help.”