My family and I just got back from a trip to our nation's capital (read: I just dragged my three children through a three day, 25 mile hike that will forever be known as The Monument March). I wanted them to see the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court... I wanted them to see our founding documents - The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights... I wanted them to see my alma mater, Georgetown University, and the places I lived and worked during my years in DC. And we did all of that and more in 95 degree heat with surprisingly few complaints.
There were some surprises on our trip, too, things we had not planned to see. I happened upon Thomas Jefferson's personal library on display at the Library of Congress. We encountered a free live jazz concert inside of the Smithsonian Museum of Art and I played checkers with my seven year old daughter while listening to great music and sitting amidst the original portraits of most of the founding fathers. And at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, we found a full sized Douglas A4 Skyhawk suspended from the ceiling, the plane my father-in-law flew in combat in Vietnam.
And my children encountered homelessness and mental illness for the first time.
Sitting on a bench in Union Station, a woman close by was engaged in a heated argument regarding Social Security, the banking system, and the wisdom of 30 year mortgages. She was gesticulating wildly and was clearly talking to someone she believed was sitting next to her. In this age of gadgetry, my kids initially assumed she was talking on a blue tooth head set. But I knew better. All of her belongings were in a shopping cart next to her and she clearly hadn't bathed in quite some time. While we walked from Union Station to the Capitol building, I tried to explain to my kids what they had seen. At twelve, ten, and seven years old, this was a new experience and they were having trouble processing it. They began to notice that many of the benches on the US Capitol grounds were occupied by homeless people. The following conversation with my ten year old ensued:
Will: "How do you become homeless?"
Me [thinking hard about how to explain this to a 10 year old]: "There are a lot of ways people end up homeless... but many people become homeless due to mental illness."
Will: "What's mental illness?"
Me [definitely not a clinician]: "The human brain is a really complex thing... and sometimes, it breaks... it doesn't work right... and the person suffering from mental illness loses touch with reality. They have a really hard time doing normal things like sleeping, working, and talking with others."
Will: "So they're sick?"
Will [thinking this over and jumping right to the heart of the matter]: "What are we going to do about it?"
This incredibly insightful question was put to me by my ten year old in the literal shadow of the US Capitol building. His timing couldn't have been better. "A big part of the answer," I told him, "starts right here with the people who were elected to sit in this building."
I'll spare you the detailed policy proposal, but suffice it to say that homelessness and mental illness have become problems we deal with predominantly through the criminal justice system. Therein, the patient must minister to himself, giving us little to no hope of long term recovery for the mentally ill, including (perhaps especially) those suffering from addiction disorders. Instead, we need to treat mental illness through the healthcare system, including the appropriate funding (enter Congress) that will entail.
Mental health parity provisions in the Affordable Care Act are a start. The Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act is a start. But to really answer my ten year old's question (what are we going to do about it?), we're going to need broad social, moral, and political commitment to helping those who cannot help themselves.
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