Mental Health

Care or Incarceration?

On a sunny August afternoon, I came home from work to find my 17-year-old son, Aaron, lying on the sofa moaning in pain.  He was very nauseated and running a fever.  That night we took him to the Emergency Room where a CT scan revealed he had appendicitis.  His appendix needed to be removed as soon as possible.  The surgery was scheduled immediately, and gratefully it went smoothly.

The following morning we came back to the hospital to visit Aaron.  Knowing what room he was in, we simply walked through the door of the hospital and took the elevator to the floor where he was staying.  No one stopped us at the hospital entrance and asked who we were visiting.  They never called the nurse’s station on the hospital floor to get permission for us to go to his room, and they most certainly did not request we lock up our personal belongings or go through a metal detector before proceeding to visit him.  It seems absurd, doesn’t it, that you should have to pass through metal detectors to visit your loved one in a hospital?

When Aaron was fifteen he became very ill with a difficult-to-treat case of schizophrenia.  As a result, he has spent a lot of his life passing through different mental health facilities.  EVERY time we visited Aaron at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, we were required to stop at the front desk and tell them who we came to visit.  They called the ward where he was staying to get permission for us to visit him.  Once confirmed that it was Ok for us to proceed, they had us lock up our belongings.  Finally, they took a metal detecting wand and checked our front and back for weapons.  This process caused me to shake my head in wonderment.  Was my son in a hospital or was he in a prison?

The differences between many Mental Health facilities and hospitals that mainly treat people’s physical issues don’t just stop at the lobby.  Most hospital rooms are outfitted with comfortable beds, televisions and walls painted with pleasant colors intended to calm and comfort the patient.  Many mental health facilities Aaron was admitted to looked like the walls hadn’t been painted for years.  The rooms were often shared with one or more patients, and each patient only had a low platform bed to sleep on.  Patients were lucky if there was one working TV in a common room with more than a few channels for them to choose from, let alone having a TV in their room.  I can understand the stark nature of the furnishings and bed linens might be intentional to keep people safe from personal harm.  Still, shouldn’t the intent also be to create a calm and comforting environment to help the patient heal?  I rarely walked into a calm and comforting environment when walking through the halls of a mental health facility. 

Is it any wonder that many people with mental illness don’t seek help for their disorders?  According to the American Psychiatric Association because of the stigma surrounding mental illness more than half of the people with mental illness don’t receive help for their disorders.  The 3 types of stigma researchers identify are public stigma, self-stigma, and institutional stigma.  It is the institutional stigma that promotes policies that create significant disparities in the environment and care people receive in mental health facilities versus hospitals for the physically ill.

Aaron is 38 now.  I’ve been observing the institutional care he has been receiving for the past 23 years and I have only seen limited positive change if any.  Mental illness is, however, getting more visibility in the past few years due to the impact many have felt from COVID and social policies created because of it.  This is unfortunate, but at the same time, I’m hoping it is a blessing in the long run.  Because the more people talk about mental illness and the more people understand it, the likelihood of positive change will finally be realized.  Institutional stigma can be reversed.

“Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination against People with Mental Illness.” – Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness, Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., Aug. 2020,

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