Valley went through some significant changes at the end of last year which had a serious impact on the severely and persistently mentally ill population in the Salt Lake valley. I've been talking to Valley's staff, clients and their families, to Salt Lake County and state officials, and others involved in caring for the mentally ill to understand exactly what that impact has been. I've also charted the progress, or lack of it, of a number of Valley's mentally ill clients as they've struggled to get on with their lives.
The commitment of Valley workers to their clients is unmistakable and humbling. The strength and resilience of those same clients is equally remarkable, given all they have to cope with on a daily basis.
I attended a recent class given at a non-profit that provides support for the mentally ill. At that class, I listened to several people talk of their struggles with mental illness. One compared living with the voices in his head to the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons whose voice endlessly drones on in the background, "waa-waa-waa." If he takes his medication then he can ignore that voice; if he doesn't then that voice becomes more dominant, more insistent.
By chance, driving past Pioneer Park the other day, I thought I caught a glimpse of one client I had interviewed, but whose story didn't make it into the piece. Along with her severe mental illness, she is also a drug abuser. I wondered if she was there scoring a $20 hit of crack, as she told me she often did to self-medicate her anxiety and depression. By the time I parked and got out of the car, she was gone. Sooner or later, I fear, she will end up in jail, charged with possession. Our jails, after all, are this country's defacto institutions.
It's impossible to cover mental health and not be deeply moved by the people you meet, both those who are providers and the people they serve. But as 'Mental Hell' shows, those who control these publicly-funded services, some argue, have made decisions that suggest a clear detachment from the realities and needs of many they serve.