If you’ve ever had the experience of dealing with the mental health “system” we have here in the U.S., either for yourself or for someone you love, then you need to read No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, by Ron Powers. As a matter of fact, if you are at all interested in how we deal, or don’t deal, with people suffering from schizophrenia, you should definitely read this book, heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.
Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winning author of nonfiction, has a personal interest in the subject matter: he had two sons, both of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia in their early 20’s. One son committed suicide, the other came close to suicide but managed to survive the worst of the disease. Half of the book tells the excruciating story of a parent’s nightmare: watching your beloved child suffer from a disease that medicine doesn’t understand and is nowhere close to curing. You know from the outset that Kevin is going to kill himself (Powers tells us this in the introduction), so throughout the story of the young man’s brilliance and talents you are, in some sense, bracing yourself for the horrible end of the story. Even so, when it comes, it’s heartbreaking.
But this isn’t just a memoir of the loss and near loss of two young men to mental illness. It’s also an exceptionally well-written story of what we know, and don’t know, about schizophrenia and mental illness in general, and a history of how our society, and its predecessors (all the way through recorded history), has dealt with people suffering from schizophrenia, diagnosed or not. It’s not a pretty story at all, from the inhumanity of places like Bedlam in England (where not only were mentally ill people — and people who probably weren’t mentally ill but were behaving in a way that diverged from social expectations — treated worse than animals, chained to walls, beaten and subjected to all kinds of ugly treatments, but they were also used as entertainment for rich people who would pay to come and jeer at the crazy people) through the American system that Dorothea Dix fought against on grounds of humanity, through the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill (thanks, former President Reagan, a leader in the California movement) and the promise and abuse of pharmacological means of treating schizophrenia. He does leave us with a little hope, but the hope depends not just on a change in science (some of which is already underway), but on a change in social attitudes, which seems less likely.
The book is appalling and enthralling in equal measures. It’s not a fun book to read, but it’s incredibly well-written and the subject matter is extremely timely and important. If you or anyone you love has been caught in the toils of our unnecessarily complicated and difficult mental health system, this is a book you want to read.