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'They Have Souls, Too' : Plight Of Mentally Ill Examined By Abc News

June 26, 1987|MARK SCHWED | United Press International TV Editor

NEW YORK — There is the chance that with all the troubles at CBS News, and all the celebration at NBC News, a very moving piece of work by ABC will slip by unnoticed.

Don't let it happen. "They Have Souls, Too," the third documentary from the ABC News Closeup unit this year, is by far the best documentary to emerge from any network news organization in 1987. Sadly, it airs in a dead zone for news, on a Friday night (tonight from 8:30-9:30 on Channels 7, 3, 10, 42).

The brainchild of Helen Whitney, who served as producer, director and co-writer, and Pam Hill, vice president and executive producer of the Closeup unit, "They Have Souls, Too" examines the way the mentally ill have been treated in the United States.

After the hour is up, the result is that the victims who were caged like animals in giant state institutions and then abandoned to the streets cannot be ignored.

"These people have souls just like everybody else," says John Nagle, whose cousin Mary is mentally ill.

There is not much need for artful cinematography--just point the camera and let it roll--but Closeup managed to squeeze some in anyway.

There are disturbing pictures of the institutions and the people who lived behind the walls. Faces that scream, hopeless eyes that dart, heads that snap and twist and dip.

Nagi Fitzpatrick is mentally ill. She has been given shock treatments. She has seriously slashed her hands and set herself on fire. She describes how she feels. "Empty, cold, alone, hopeless, suicidal." And as she says these words, the camera pulls away slowly, revealing a cold, empty room in which Nagi sits alone.

But in this documentary, the words pack the punch. Each one is worth a thousand pictures. And together with the pictures, it is impossible not to be moved by the plight of the victims.

"I know people are scared of us and I wish they wouldn't be," says Cathy McCowan, a victim of extreme mood swings and delusions who lived in institutions for 15 years. "I wish they would try to understand us more. We've got problems just like they have problems, only a little more."

" . . . I don't know what causes a mental illness, but I wish somebody would find a cure. 'Cause it's painful and it hurts. And it's just, there's no peace of mind. Every day you wake up in this hell in your brain."

The warehousing of the mentally ill in giant state institutions gave way during the 1960s and 1970s to "something perhaps even worse," says Marshall Frady, the lone correspondent and co-writer for the program--"the abandonment of many to the streets."

These castaways make up one third of the nation's homeless.

Tuesday, 30, is the mother of two. She has been on and off the streets since she was 12 and has delusions and loss of memory.

" . . . What I want most in the world is to get my mind back together again, remember things, see my children. So dearly I want to see my children again. I wanted to be loved by somebody and I want to have a place to live so bad."

Welfare is too complicated for the mentally ill and laws are such that it is almost impossible to commit someone against their will. Some street therapists come to the rescue. But there are not enough to go around. The mentally ill who don't make it on the streets may wind up in jail, like Bobby Wroten, who is scared, and has just been raped.

"This is not a good environment for a sane person," says Sheriff Andy Winston of his jail and Bobby.

If not in a giant warehouse, or on the streets, or in jail, the last asylum for the mentally ill is the family.

David Weisburd was a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University when his mind snapped. "It's a real bleak place," he says. But he is one of the lucky ones. His family has not abandoned him.

"There are little moments when he's lucid and happy," says his father, looking at his wife and son play the piano together, "and they recapture some of that closeness seated at the piano. And it tears you up. It does me."

"They Have Souls, Too" sets you up for the kill, painting a grim picture of helplessness and the unloved, but it withdraws the sword of guilt just in the nick of time and fills those empty rooms and the TV screen with hope and warmth.

There is no cure, but some efforts do work. Some people do get better. There must be reforms in public policy, Frady says, but the most promising efforts depend on human touch.

McCowan finds a friend in Tony Turner. David has his Mom and Dad. Father Tom Hopko has the touch too. He has been there for Alexis whenever she needed a friend.

"If she's been told for 33 years she can't make it, then she wants to fulfill that prophecy, you know," says the priest. "But I think there's enough people around who say, 'Bull, you can make it,' you know, and so I think she's kind of cornered, you know, cornered by grace."

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