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Commentary

Treat the Mentally Ill With Decency

April 20, 2002

Re "An Rx Against Violence," editorial, April 14: The analogy you used of the injured person refusing paramedic help to expose the lunacy of our policy for the mentally ill homeless was right on the mark. Here's another: By law, a minor is deemed incapable of making the decision to live on the street, yet we let a mentally incompetent person make such a decision. So why is it that being mentally ill is a valid legal defense for murder (the mentally ill offender cannot tell right from wrong), yet being mentally ill isn't a reason to get a person off the street?

The unholy alliance, during the Gov. Reagan era, of the right wing (which wanted to cut spending) and the left-wing libertarians (who wanted to free the institutionalized) has been a complete and total failure. Running a mental institution on our streets is clearly ruining our cities. Surely we can do better for those who need (but don't know they need) help.

Tomas Fuller

Santa Monica

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It is a strange logic that suggests that the consequences of lack of treatment for the "small percentage of people" who are both violent and labeled "mentally ill" are somehow "just as bad" as the historic and continuing mistreatment of those who have found themselves in the care of the mental health system. To my knowledge, no study has been done comparing violence perpetrated by the mentally ill with the violence imposed upon them by those into whose care they have, voluntarily or forcibly, been entrusted.

It is not our expectation of caregivers that they will insult, humiliate, rape, assault and, without informed consent, conduct dangerous experiments upon those in their care. Yet only the poorly informed, or the mendaciously self-interested, would deny that this has been the lot of many thousands of the psychiatrically diagnosed. And this is in addition to the not-so-infrequent damage done by mental health treatments themselves.

The scandal now surrounding revelations of mistreatment of vulnerable individuals by persons acting under cover of piety within the Catholic Church suggests that none of our institutions should be immune from public scrutiny. Neither should the experiences of those who fear, mistrust or challenge venerated institutions be easily dismissed for no better reason than the public's need for self-deception. The record of our mainstream mental health system is hardly so free of taint that any of us should offer it our unexamined trust, much less those who have experienced its ministrations or those upon whom we would force its services by government edict.

Both public and private safety are better served by an imperfect but largely transparent justice system than by a mental health system that protects an unknown but too-high percentage of wolves in sheep's clothing.

Michael H. Weinberg

Support Coalition International

Pasadena

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