Mind and Body

Learning to see the mentally ill as humans, and treating them that way

Author Ron Powers will visit Rhode Island on Nov. 2 to talk about his new book, No One Cares about Crazy People

Photo courtesy of Ron Powers

Ron Powers, author of "No One Cares about Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America," will be speaking on Nov. 2 at a workshop sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/23/17
Ron Powers has devoted himself to giving voice to those with mental illness, to fight back against the stigma expressed by too many people who see the mentally ill as creatures to loathe, rather than human beings to help. His new book is entitled, No One Cares about Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America. Powers is speaking on Nov. 2 in East Providence.
How many people with mental disabilities are being swept away into jail in Rhode Island because of their inability to pay fines or parking tickets? How has the decrease in funding for community mental health centers and a continuum of care resulted in increased episodes of serious episodes of psychosis and admission to psychiatric hospitals? What has research shown about the success of providing wrap-around services for people with mental illnesses, as part of the HealthPath pilot program with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island? What is the correlation of toxic stress in early childhood and the likelihood of developing brain disorders such as schizophrenia?
One of the great health care deficiencies in Rhode Island is access to pediatric psychiatric care for children, with the waiting time for an appointment often taking months. In turn, many psychiatrists no longer take insurance, requiring cash payments for therapy sessions. A third conundrum is the way that behavioral health therapy for patients in primary care settings often consists of a brief, 15-minute session with a psychiatrist to review medications, without consultation with other “talk” therapists. In turn, because of insurance issues, a person can be charged co-pays for several visits when going to see different providers at the same practice.
The chronic pain that many patients suffer from often has direct correlation with depression and other symptoms of chronic diseases, such as diabetes. For aging adults, one of the biggest problems is loneliness.

PROVIDENCE – Mental health has been in the news a lot of late. On one side of the pendulum swing, there is the continuing controversy about concerns regarding the mental stability of President Donald Trump.

A recent report by 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts that alleged that Trump suffers from serious mentally illness and presents a clear and present danger to the nation.

The report, a 384-page analysis entitled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” was released earlier this month. It concluded: Trump is “psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.” The report recommended that Trump be removed from office, citing Article 4 of the 25th Amendment.

On another side of the pendulum swing, closer to home, there is the recent treatise on depression by freelancer Phil Eil, “Sometimes depression means not feeling anything at all,” published by Tonic.

In an evocation of the numbness that accompanied his own bout with depression, Eil wrote: “I never realized how little I knew about depression until I became depressed. I didn’t know, for instance, how depression can snatch away your sex drive, leaving you feeling newly – and involuntarily – asexual.”

Eil continued: “ I didn't know that depression attacks your attention span, your energy, and your ability to finish things. During a recent bout, I had trouble finishing magazine articles and movies. The number of emails I sent plummeted. Everyday errands felt like Herculean tasks.”

Most surprising to Eil was his own emotional numbness. “Nothing about hearing the word depression prepares you for having a moment of eye contact with your two-year-old niece that you know ought to melt my heart – but it doesn’t,” he wrote. “Or for sitting at a funeral for a friend, surrounded by sobs and sniffles, and wondering, with a mix of guilt and alarm, why you’re not feeling more.”

Somewhere in the middle of that pendulum swing – between bouts of depression that can be invisible to others, and worries about the President’s very public displays of alleged mental instability – is the fact that many families whose loved ones have been diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness as a result of disorders and diseases of the brain do not have a voice to tell their story.

To try to fill that gap, Ron Powers wrote a new book, No One Cares about Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America. In doing so, Powers broke more a decade of silence about his own sons, who were both diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of whom committed suicide, determined to give voice to the mentally ill, whom Powers believes are often invisible to society and denied the basic acknowledgement of their own humanity.

Ron Powers will be speaking on Thursday, Nov. 2, at Metacomet Country Club, in a workshop and book-signing sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island and co-sponsored by Bradley Hospital.

Powers admitted that he knew little about mental illness until his sons developed schizophrenia.

“I think that serious mental illness is still saddled with ancient superstitions and myths that have hung around despite advances in science,” Powers said, in a recent interview with ConvergenceRI. “There’s an assumption that all mentally ill people are dangerous,” he continued, but the reality is that people with mental illness are as dangerous as the same percentage of rational people.”

The result of that myth is that people wrongly believe those who suffer from mental illness are no good, Powers continued. “[That there is] nothing to be done with them except to lock them away.”

For many, Powers said, to be frank, “It’s not comfortable to be around a mentally ill person.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with author Ron Powers, who will be conducting a workshop to address the issues of stigma around mental illness on Nov. 2.

ConvergenceRI: What is the message that you want to communicate to people around mental health and mental illness?
To reduce it to a simple message, it is: educate yourself and speak out, with an understanding of what serious mental illness is.

It implies a brain disease, often involving genetic flaws, if these genes are activated by stress or several other causes.

As a result, the blossoming of schizophrenia will kick in. The condition is permanent; there is no known cure.

Early intervention can matter. A 16-year-old or 17-year-old, if properly diagnosed for what it is in time, can [be prescribed medication] to cut down on the symptoms and greatly stabilize the person.

I learned more about the social problems after finishing the book. I’ve come into contact, on a private Facebook page, with the parents and relatives with schizophrenia that can talk to each other in privacy.

I am appalled and horrified by the ignorance about the disease. There is ignorance at the state level; so many are misinformed and apathetic. Certainly the police, although there are training programs now that instruct officers how to handle psychotics and how not to make it worse.

Also judges – but not all judges. Some judges will sentence a juvenile in psychosis to jail. The dumping of mentally ill in our prison and jails is one of the great national [scandals].

It is fed by an unwillingness to talk about this disease, to learn about it, and to speak out about it.

Even parents who know what is happening can remain silent because of the embarrassment and worry that the whole family will be ostracized, a black mark on the family’s life.

The same stigma was true for cancer families, until pretty recently.

ConvergenceRI: Why is your message considered so controversial?
I think that serious mental illness is still saddled with ancient superstitions and myths that have hung on despite advances in science.

That nothing can be done with them except to lock them away, to put them in an asylum to get them off the street.

I’m very concerned with the lack of uniform standards in county jails, where the sheriff is the absolute authority, the overlord of the jail system.

One of the things that happens to these kids [who are experiencing a psychotic episode] is solitary confinement. It is certainly true at Rikers Island in New York City.

They are often subject to beatings by guards, by their fellow inmates, and then tossed into solitary confinement.

Too many people see them as creatures to loathe, rather than human beings to help.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a need to look more deeply at the way the brain is wired?
No one has completely solved what happens in an adolescent’s brain between the ages of 15 to 20.

This is when the brain undergoes its final stage of growth, with a massive cleaning out or pruning of cells that have been directing the brain through infancy and childhood. The brain is ready for a new system, to inform the system through the rest of her life, this pruning.

I’m not a scientist, but what happens is that the vacancy in the brain creates room for an oversupply of neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, that are activated in a crisis or when you are angry.

[In schizophrenia], the overflow becomes a problem instead, shutting down the rational operations of the brain forever.

ConvergenceRI: What is the role of the community in the conversation around mental illness?
When a person is in the care of a psychiatric hospital, there are professionals who diagnose, who prescribe medications, they do what is necessary to be done with therapy. Beyond that, when the patient is released from the hospital, the psychiatrist often ensures that the patient has somewhere to go, to smooth the transition to the afterlife from a psychiatric hospitalization.

What is needed are more enlightened community care centers. If we as a nation could get behind funding and supporting community centers, that would be a tremendous step forward. It is realistic and possible to ask an entire community to help out.

I do believe that community centers, ones that meet the professional standards, need to be widened and expanded to provide that stepping stone into the larger community.

ConvegenceRI: Is it hard to get people to listen to your story? When there is resistance, is it a matter of denial or deflection?
If you are talking about the people who attend my talks, they do listen very well. It’s a pretty self-selected audience; they are eager for information.

Sometimes, it is very hard to get mentally ill young to listen. It’s called anosognosia, [a deficit in self-awareness]. They often don’t accept that they are different than anyone else.

Before both of my children were struck [with schizophrenia], I knew nothing about the disease.

Many spokespeople for the mentally ill, they are inhabitants of the sub-national archipelago of stricken families.

It is difficult for some people to shed their biases about mental illnesses. The need for education is ongoing; it never stops.

It goes without saying that my life – and Honoree’s life [my wife] – were devastated by these tragedies.

Honoree had a Ph.D. in biophysics and taught biochemistry, but even given all that, we were babes in the woods about schizophrenia.

To registed for the workshop with Ron Powers, please go to www.mhari.org.


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