Saturday, September 25, 2010

When Medicine Got It Wrong

On Saturday morning, I attended a NAMI San Diego screening of Katie Cadigan's gut-wrenching documentary, "When Medicine Got It Wrong."

Boy, did they ever. Back in the bad old days (actually, we are still deep in the bad old days), psychiatry blamed schizophrenia on bad parenting, a view that persisted well into the 1980s. The villain of the piece was the "schizophrenogenic" mother, one who committed the crime (in apparent complicity with the disinterested father) of being overprotective toward her child.

Practically on a whim, kids could be legally separated from their parents and locked away for the rest of their lives. By some logic way too crazy to comprehend, it was considered far more therapeutic to consign these kids to the hell holes of state institutions than keep them with their families.

Parents were treated with outright hostility by those who should have known better. One parent in Cadigan's film recalls being told by a hospital staffer that she was the reason her kid was in there. Another parent recalls a psychiatrist telling her kid, in her presence, that it was okay to express his hostility to his mother. If psychiatrists could not find anything wrong with the parents, by God, they were going to find something wrong with them, anyway.

One parent only half-jokingly remarked that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" got it all wrong. There was only one Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo's Nest. In real mental hospitals, there were many Nurse Ratcheds.

During the 70s, parents started to get together and compare notes. Then they began organizing. They got in the face of mental health boards and politicians. They were told to behave. They did not. They refused to take no for an answer. This was the beginning of NAMI. Literally, NAMI started out as a kitchen table enterprise. Kitchen tables in California, kitchen tables in Maryland, kitchen tables in Wisconsin ...

Then the people from these kitchen tables banded together and went national. Slowly, the parents began making headway. They found allies among the few enlightened psychiatrists of the day. They helped close down the institutions, they promoted brain science and biological psychiatry, they fought for humane treatment and services for their kids. They moved mountains.

Alas, the law of unintended consequences proved a far more formidable obstacle. Their kids were released into the streets, with no services. The jails and prisons became overcrowded with the mentally ill. And biological psychiatry has yet to deliver on its bright promise.

There has been a generational transition. The film shows a sister as the caregiver for her brother. She has taken over the responsibilities from her deceased mother. The mothers and fathers in the film - unsung heroes, founders of NAMI - are getting on in years. Their kids - well into middle age - are still struggling. We see the early home movies and photos - young kids, laughing, clear eyes, their lives ahead of them. We see present day clips - grizzled adults, thousand-yard stare in their eyes, but with a small flame flickering.

The torch has been passed. A new generation of NAMI advocates are fighting the fight. That generation, in turn, will make way for a newer generation, who in turn will make way for yet a newer generation. No matter how successful we may be in getting people to listen, there will always be a fight. No matter how much progress we may make, we will always be in the bad old days.

Just one person in need is one person too many. We have a long long way to go. Just so long as we have people willing to fight ...

On Friday, Oct 8, at its Inspirational Awards Dinner, NAMI San Diego will be honoring Katie Cadigan as its Inspirational Person of the Year. You are cordially invited to attend. For further info, please check out the dinner page on the NAMI San Diego website.

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