Juneau Before coming up to help organize the Mental Health Consumers Action Network (MCAN) in Alaska, I only had one request. I wanted to be able to meet and listen to men and women who had experience in the system to hear their issues and ideas for improvements. I wanted to talk to the consumers who would be the members of MCAN.
In my first meeting, about ten of us gathered around a table at Polaris House in Juneau. Polaris House is sort of a mutual support center providing a “safe” space for “people whose lives have been severely disrupted because of their mental illness,” as one of their brochures described their work.
I had heard from state officials about so-called “gaps” in the system, but that was meaningless without hearing what people facing the gaps felt, so once I started asking questions it wasn’t long before everyone around the table weighed in with their views about what needed to be done. This was a language and jargon I didn’t know. People talked articulately about their own situations, bipolar with schizophrenia rising, sounding almost like an astrology prediction or various kinds or mania or disorders in this way or that, but all of them with medication and treatment that were as articulate and powerful – and invisible – as anyone you might pass on the street.
One woman spoke of the huge value of something she called a “respite center,” which seemed to be space or half-way house before having to be hospitalized in a crisis. Such centers served as a place someone could go to get right before it was too late. The woman credited the center and her several visits there with allowing her to keep a job as a state employee for more than 20 years even while trying to do her best to manage her illness. Her comments brought hearty agreement. Tragically, this program seems to have been shut down, and worse others complained that the state’s crisis intervention folks used criteria that often blocked people from the few hospital beds that existed, giving them now no place to go, essentially until they got worse.
Other issues came fast and furious, large and small. Mental illness is not a visible disability, and highly treatable, yet there is a stigma attached to it and a public fear in dealing with it. People talked about being fired from jobs once employers found that they had mental health issues. One man counted three times in Juneau alone. Of course this is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but without an organization of consumers, employers will get away with this until stopped. Others talked about being denied housing or evicted from housing once their situation was known. Of course the Fair Housing Act bans this, but once again without an organization saying, NO, that’s just the way things go. The meeting was an education for me, and an endorsement of what MCAN was seeking to do.
Coincidentally in Juneau I had been reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, while here. The main theme of course is the hard, personal road he followed to become a rock star hero, but the sub-theme that was surprising was Springsteen’s own fight to find stability with his mental health issues. He was clear that he only made it with 30 years of constant therapy and the ability to reach out when he hit the wall and find doctors that were able to perform miracles for him with psycho-pharmaceuticals. He had the money and support to make it, but his issues were such that it was still startling to hear him write off whole clumps of years in his sixties. Yes, not weeks or months, but years.
Too many want to make the homeless man or woman the face for mental illness, but I’d like to be in the crowd hollering, Bruce! And, that’s not crazy. A brochure I picked up from Polaris, rattled off the stats: 46% of Americans will experience mental illness in their lives; 26% will face it in any given year; and 5.8% of Americans will face a “severe” crisis annually. Springsteen also represents because Polaris cites its experience that only a quarter of one-percent (.25%) of the people they serve need housing. This is a big constituency even in the small population of Alaska with an estimated 24000 adults with serious mental illness in the state, and a life expectancy of 25 years less than the general population.
MCAN has its work cut out for it as a membership-based organization, but the issues are there, people are angry, and change is needed, whether we’re talking about on the stage of rock concerts, the house next door, the co-worker in the cubicle down the hall, or on the streets of Juneau.