Neither would you send them to doss houses or jail. Yet, this is what has long been happening to a section of our community, the sick of mind, the mentally ill.
Some decades ago, the closing down of mental hospitals and psychiatric wards were deliberately initiated. The lofty theory was that from then on, those people with a psychiatric illness would be taken care of by a loving caring community, run by loving state or local health bodies. Thousands were put into boarding homes, half- way houses and onto health benefits which then would pay for their lodgings at those ‘establishments’. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that this then allowed open slather on the unfortunate mentally ill. It was also thought that, like magic, the mentally ill sufferers would somehow be ‘absorbed’ and possibly even ‘cured’. The reality is, they ended up in our jails or disappeared in the land of the forgotten. Some of those you might get a glimpse of when visiting the cop shop, their mug shots pinned on the wall.
The problem with those suffering from mental illness such as schizophrenia or the preferred tag of ‘bi-polar’ is that the symptoms of mental illness are not always so benign as not to need more than just a packet of tablets, a pat on the back, a bed to sleep in or a meal on their plates. I know, because my brother Frank has suffered from chronic schizophrenia his whole life.
Soon after my parents immigrated here in 1956, my brother Frank’s behaviour became increasingly difficult. My parents were no longer able to manage his violent outbursts. The potted geranium would routinely be thrown through the glass door, the scissors ended up sticking in my brother John’s side. He was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and hospitalised at Callan Park Mental hospital, Sydney. His many years in and out of this hospital were a nightmare that continued to traumatise our family relentlessly. A true ‘Bedlam’ situation if ever there was. Has that situation after all those years changed?
Nothing would have pleased my parents more than to have had their son living with them. This was just not possible with five other younger siblings to look after as well. Frank’s attempted suicide jump from Iron Cove Bridge Sydney was the final straw. He was, thanks to the Dutch government, repatriated back to the Netherlands where he has lived ever since. His care is excellent, which we can only dream about here in Australia, but more importantly, Frank is still alive. I doubt this would be the case if he had stayed here.
The idea that the mentally ill would be taken care of without any professional well-run facilities or expert care was never a sound idea and was probably based more on saving money than care for the mentally ill. They often end up in jail for no other reason than that they are ill and cannot find the expert help they need. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the incarcerated are suffering from some form of mental disease. When judges are confronted by cases of violence or even homicide, and the offenders are mentally ill, their only, often-reluctant choice is for a jail sentence.
Our expenditure on mental health is much lower than most other comparable countries. No matter who is in power, Libs or Labor, our mentally ill sons and daughters are the forgotten Australians. Year after year, if not in jail, they end up wandering the streets, dishevelled, unbuttoned, and unkempt with their physical health as bad as their mental state.
I have never heard of people needing heart surgery or broken limbs ending up wandering the streets or worse, being sent to jail. Why is that so often the case with the mentally ill?
There is a dearth of information that it is not only jails that are being swamped with the mentally ill. The emergency departments of hospitals are also overloaded on a daily basis by people with psychiatric problems for whom there are no alternatives.
My brother Frank is a lot calmer now and he has his own room with TV enabling him to watch his beloved soccer, he receives good medical care including regular dental checkups, podiatric care and most importantly, his medication is supervised. He receives his full sickness benefits which he can use as he sees fit. He enjoys regular holidays and he visited my parents accompanied by caring well-trained staff when they were still alive. I can phone Frank up and receive regular updates from expert psychiatrists and doctors.
It cost money but so does our love of wars fought in faraway countries. While some Australians have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, I bet you far more lives are lost on our streets by our own Government’s lack of care for our mentally ill.
Gerard Oosterman is now a word painter and blogger of tens of thousands of very wise and/or whimsical but hopefully amusing words.