When a person with mental illness can’t or won’t seek treatment, life goes on… for some. While most people with mental illness are well enough to seek and manage their own care, when individuals on the more severe end of the spectrum do not receive treatment, the consequences can be devastating. Because many people with conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder experience episodes in which they are unable to acknowledge their illness or their need for help, they frequently do not seek treatment and only get connected with help during times of crisis.
While there are laws that allow for court-ordered treatment, the threshold for this intervention is understandably– and often regrettably– high, even for psychotic individuals. Social isolation, homelessness and incarceration are too commonly the end result.
The number of mentally ill people living on the streets and behind bars today is partly the legacy of the de-institutionalization movement in the 1950s, when nearly half a million people were released from residential mental health hospitals around the United States. The hope was that clinics in the community would be able to take responsibility for the care of these vulnerable individuals. However, promised community resources never materialized, and the resources that did were vastly insufficient to meet the needs of this population. It is now clear that the public policy goals of closing down substandard facilities to save on public health care costs were never fully realized.
Voices illustrates a range of experiences individuals and families have when their lives intersect with– or fall outside of– America’s mental health care system. Sharon lives in a long-term care facility where her schizophrenia is managed by professionals and a strong family network, surrounding and advocating for her, including a devoted brother, and son who is a physician. Thomas is an example of an untreated person who lives peaceably on the street and gets by, known as a gentle neighborhood character with an easy smile. Aaron Bassler’s story is the kind that too often makes headlines, ending in tragedy for his family, and several others. Bassler was known to be suffering from untreated mental illness when he shot and killed two people. He became the subject of a manhunt in the redwood forests of Northern California, and was ultimately shot to death by law enforcement. His father says the manhunt played right into his son’s paranoid psychosis. Aaron’s family knew he needed help, but had no success connecting him to mental health services in their community because Aaron never acknowledged his illness and subsequently refused help.
Voices depicts the emotional journeys of three individuals both before and after the onset of their severe mental illness, and explores how the gaps in services and public policy can often profoundly impact their lives, families and the community.