Of Beldam & Truth

Bedlam Statues“The rattling of chains, the shrieks of those severely treated by their barbarous keepers, mingled with curses, oaths, and the most blasphemous imprecations, did from one quarter of the house shock her tormented ears while from another, howlings like that of dogs, shoutings, roarings, prayers, preaching, curses, singing, crying, promiscuously join’d to make a chaos of the most horrible confusion.” (Haywood, 1726)

If I were to write a play about behavioral health units (BHU) it would be far from the above lines from The Distress’d Orphan about Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital, but closer to Waiting for Godot set in Wake Forest Baptist Hospital. BHUs, based on my experience, are scene after scene of repetition and routine interrupted by intermissions to eat and swallow pills. BHUs take pride in reducing distractions, disturbances, and deviations. If boredom could be measured it would be found in lethal levels in any given BHU. In fact, the closest I ever came to meeting a stark, raving madman was a chain-smoker when he was told he’d have to make do with NicoDerm. Having been a patient 3 times, having visited such units as a chaplain/minister, and having spoken with fellow former patients, I feel confident in saying that my observations are typical. And the typical patient is far more likely to harm himself/herself than other patients.

What is observed of inpatients is true after he/she is discharged. The mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of a crime than its perpetrators. (Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders, so the idea of a depressive robbing a liquor store is just absurd. Most depressives that I know, including myself, would be hard-pressed to rob his/her own pantry of a bag of chips before binge-watching Netflix.) “Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.” (mentalhealth.gov)

Think about it; 26.2% of Americans live with a diagnosable mental illness and we have a population of around 318.9 million people. (2014 Census) That would mean there are 83.5 million people carrying a diagnosis of mental illness in the U.S. at any one time. To put this into further perspective, there are 9.9 million in NC. (Ibid.) So there are just under 8 1/2 NC’s worth of mentally ill people in this country. If you categorically think that mental illness equals criminal behavior it would seem that there would be far more instances of mentally ill persons committing crimes. One study found that only 7.5% of crimes committed are due to symptoms of a mental illness. (How Often and How Consistently do Symptoms Directly Precede Criminal Behavior Among Offenders With Mental Illness? Peterson, et. al.; appearing in Law and Human Behavior, April 2014) And similar results are corroborated by any number of other studies. And yet, why do some people associate violence with the mentally ill?

It is a matter of perception. Think about it, when we hear about crimes committed by people with mental illness, they tend to be big headline-grabbing crimes that get lodged in our imagination. And who is responsible for such erroneous perceptions, consider the following letter by a woman who visited London’s infamous Bedlam (Bethlem) Hospital. (Bedlam has long been a name that is synonymous with chaos and madness.):

“I was at a loss to account for the behaviour of the generality of people who were looking at these melancholy objects. Instead of the concern I think unavoidable at such a sight, a sort of mirth appeared on their countenances, and the distemper’d [sic] fancies of the miserable patients most unaccountably provoked mirth and loud laughter in the unthinking auditors; and the many hideous roaring, and the wild motions of others, seemed equally entertaining to them. Nay, so shamefully inhuman were some, among whom (I am sorry to say it!) were several of my own sex, as to endeavour to provoke the patients into a rage, to make them sport.” (Anon., Letters Written to and for Particular Friends on the Most Important Occasions pgs. 221-222)

As a consequence, much of the mayhem associated with Bedlam resulted, not from the ravings of its patients, but instead from the shouts, taunts, and laughter of visitors.” (Bedlam: London’s Hospital for the Mad, 2009) And we are likewise culpable for such understandings when we don’t challenge mental illness’ stereotypes and misperceptions. We become perpetrators when we don’t confront fiction with observable fact.

Jesus sailed to the land of the Gerasene (Mark 5:1-17) and no sooner than his sandals touched the shore was he confronted by a man possessed by a legion of unclean spirits. The man lived amongst the tombs because the locals couldn’t keep him chained up. He should have been an inpatient, but was treated like an inmate. His crime; crying and cutting himself. Jesus had barely stood on the shore when the man asks if Jesus will torture him. What had this man’s life been like that he would assume that people were just going to abuse him?

What happens next reminds me of a quote often attributed to St. Francis, “Preach, and if necessary use words.” Jesus does speak,  but he speaks to the man’s illness, not his identity. Legion is not his name. Legion is not his identity. Legion is his illness. And this man is more than his illness as are all people. It is sadly contemporary that Mark mentions that the surrounding community upon seeing the man dressed and in his right mind respond with fear. There was stigma then, and that stigma persists now. How many people with mental illness upon cure/remission/recovery are still regarded with fear? And yet, Jesus is found amongst the tombs and not in the villages bordering them. Jesus’ actions challenge us to meet a person in his/her illness, act on his/her behalf and then abides with him/her until he/she is found in his/her right mind. Jesus presence amongst the tombs challenges us to go amongst similar tombs.

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