The screensaver on my computer is a picture of Sisyphus pushing his rock up hill. That’s what this feels like – being committed to adding my small voice to the growing chorus calling for bold change to the American mental health system. Actually, it really is not a system at all. Perhaps we are calling, once and for all, for the creation of a system that actually serves people.
When I used to talk about this to gatherings large and small (sigh, really missing those times) I would start with: what is a system? Think about the systems that work for us.
Systems that are well-designed have a specific purpose. They are also remarkably simple. Think of the circulatory system. There are static parts – heart, lungs, arteries. The moving part – blood – depends upon the static parts to do its job in moving oxygen through the body. The purpose is to keep us alive.
Then there are systems designed by human ingenuity. Some human-designed systems work fairly well because there a relatively clear consensus on the purpose. Think of the American transportation system. There are static parts – airports, train stations, roads and freeways. The moving parts – planes, trains and automobiles – depend upon the static parts to move people through the country. The purpose is to move us from Point A to Point B to facilitate commerce and mobility for the people.
Only occasionally do we see epic system failure, such as this “bridge to nowhere” pictured at the top of this blog, which exists in Cape Town South Africa.
The mental health system in America cannot be described in simple terms, and that is a red flag. It is a non-system, actually. It is a mixed bag of static and moving parts that interact with no clear purpose. Some of those static parts were never envisioned to become part of this failed system (e.g., jail beds and street corners) but they are static parts of this non-system, nonetheless.
What I saw in Trieste was amazingly simple to describe. There are static parts – a small hospital emergency psych ward; four community mental health centers with emergency beds, accountable clinicians, social workers and peer community workers; housing and community-based vocational and social support. The moving parts – users of their system and their families – depend upon the static parts to help them live their best life. The purpose of their mental health system is to ensure that people with a mental illness are afforded the same human rights of all who live in their society – rights to housing and community inclusion, physical and mental healthcare; the right to pursue a purposeful life and freedom from coercion and restraint.
That could never happen in our current American mental health non-system.
Why do I press on?
Look, it took us 40 years to arrive at this mess; it may take 40 years to fix it. It won’t happen overnight, but let’s shoot for 20 years and get started. I don’t know even where to start and I’m not sure what tools are available. I do know that I keep meeting people who will not accept the status quo.
I also know that I’ve had the privilege to glimpse at a place on earth that proves we can do better for people. In our hearts, we know we can do better as human-beings and I will not stop reminding us of this potential.
Perhaps it takes a pandemic to bring us to our knees. To yearn for a new normal; not the old normal. Just like this year is hatcheting away at centuries of denial of systemic racism and shining a spotlight on the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in this country, let’s add our failed mental health system to the list of wrongs that we must right.
In the last couple of months, I was invited to participate in two podcasts to share my story and my passion for what I am doing in this season of my life. I share them here to underscore that I am not giving up on this impossible quest – because I am trusting that it is possible.
First, I was invited to a conversation with Dr. Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena. Originally we were supposed to talk in person on March 16, but that proved to be the week that everything was shutting down. We reconvened on May 7 via Zoom and I was able to tell this story through a faith lens, something I hadn’t done publicly until this opportunity. No matter how you feel about this story, this will explain while I am not giving up.
Second, I’ve had the pleasure to meet Scott Clapson, via David Israelian from Painted Brain. I have plans to produce my own podcast series this year (part of the “pandemic pivot” for Heart Forward LA) and I was looking for someone to help me. Scott and I met initially for a social-distance face to face meeting at Griffith Park and my spirit was raised by his infectious optimism, resiliency and enthusiasm for my impossible vision. So, to practice how this might work in an outdoor setting, I became his interview subject for his Real Good Stuff podcast. We recorded this at Pan Pacific Park (sitting six feet apart at the baseball bleachers) on July 16 and it was just uploaded this week.
I invite you to listen to both when you are out taking a long walk since the gym is closed. And thank you for hanging with me on this journey we are on together.