No home for the mentally ill: A promise broken 40 years ago sends Aunt Tilly and the war vet back to the streets

(Mental health professionals in Illinois are scrambling as Gov. Pat Quinn threatens to close seven facilities to save money. The headlines are, today, in Illinois, but they are being repeated across the country.)

In 1972 I did my first reporting for a pay check. That was, give or take a couple months, 40 years ago. One of the first stories on my to-do list: deinstitutionalization.

I remember it for two reasons. First, I had to count the letters and triple check the spelling.  Note to younguns: Back then spell check was a paperback dictionary and you had to know mostly how to spell the word in order to look it up. Assuming, of course, there were such a word. Deinstitutionalization was not then, nor thankfully is it now, an actual word.

But deinstitionalization was all the rage, so I had to spell it. The second reason I remember is this baby reporter asked an innocent question of the titled talking heads and the mental health experts.

“Where,” I asked, “are these people going to go when you let them out? I mean the family doesn’t want Aunt Tilly back.”

Silence. The honest ones shrugged their shoulders and said “we don’t know.” The dishonest ones blathered.

Apparently, 40 years later, they still don’t know. This morning’s big headline in the Rockford (IL) Register Star: “Where Singer patients would go is unanswered.”

Deinstitutionalization was political speak for: Shut down those (usually) sprawling Gothic insane asylums where families locked up crazy Aunt Tilly rather than have her in the attic, and where law enforcement and other public types could store hundreds, thousands, of humans with broken brains.

Instead of locking them up in some cuckoo’s nest movie-style cell block, deinstitutionalization would do the right thing by these troubled folks. Get them treatment, support networks, medication, halfway houses, group homes, and ensure they made it from cuckoo cell to real life. Replace the old insane asylum with residential, in-patient and out-patient treatment and rehabilitation.

A worthy goal then; a worthy one now. It is, simply, the right thing to do.

The problem? We did jack fulfilling the promises that were to become the transition from an institutional cell block to a life in the real world. For 40 years, we’ve dumped broken brains onto cops, courts, emergency rooms, street corners and shelters.

The folks who wanted to do the right things (Frank Ware and Dick Kunnert come to mind locally) saw their resources drained year after year by politicians who didn’t find mental health treatment sufficiently headline worthy. Too many of the rest of us think mental illness is something we can just get over if we made up our minds to do so.

So, here we are, having bollixed up 40-year-old promise, scrambling to see if there’s any way to stop the state from closing Singer.

We’ve got two choices and only two: Abandon the mentally ill or finally, finally raise the revenue and do what we promised 40 years ago.

I’ll vote for fulfilling the promise.