Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Back to the Knitting

Haven't posted for a couple of days because it felt like, what's the use? The world has gone insane. But what the heck, we're still here and there are still problems that matter so let's talk about some of them.

This week's NEJM puts the focus on serious mental illness -- the people who used to be in what were called "insane asylums" but are now more commonly living on the street or in prison. Lisa Rosenbaum discusses the history and the dilemmas created by the current situation. In a companion essay, Christine Montross discusses mentally ill people in prison.

You probably have heard about conditions in mental hospitals back in the day. They were indeed totalitarian realms in which patients were often degraded and abused. When antipsychotic drugs became available that could control symptoms of severe mental illness, a movement sprang up to move people out of mental hospitals and into supportive community settings. Everybody thought that was a great idea so they largely closed down the state hospitals and moved the people out. However, they didn't do part B, which was to create the supportive settings in the community. Part A saved a lot of money, or seemed to; part B would have required spending money.

So homeless shelters and prisons, rather than group homes, ended up replacing the asylum. Many people with severe mental illness can't behave the way prisoners are supposed to behave so they end up in solitary confinement. People who are (maybe) lucky enough not to be in jail are sleeping on the street. If you live in the city you see them all the time. And no, we aren't saving money. Prisons are expensive, and so are hospital emergency departments which people with serious mental illness land in with sometimes astonishing frequency. (Providence EMS, I am told, transported one individual more than 200 times in 2014.)

We might have a discussion of these issues in our political campaigns, or so you might think.

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