Read this account of a man slipping away into madness. It’s not about melodrama or violence, but about an ordinary person drifting towards paranoia, cutting off all contact with his family, and acquiring strange obsessions in place of normal human relationships. It’s harrowing and tragic.
The story also points out the social and legal difficulties in handling these cases. The man is clean and presentable, he can engage coherently for periods of time, and he will tell you that he is not sick — which means everyone is helpless to deal with his problems, and for good reason.
Once, the man’s family might have handled the situation by having him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution. For decades, it was a routine and simple procedure: If a doctor agreed that the patient had a mental illness, he could be institutionalized even against his will.
The problem was that it was a process with few safeguards, and during much of the 20th century, all kinds of people who didn’t belong — from free-thinking women to gay people, minorities and rebellious children — wound up locked in hospitals where abuse was common and conditions were often bleak.
So the system changed, with one catalyst being a 1975 Supreme Court ruling that effectively restricted involuntary commitment to instances when a person becomes a “danger to self or others,” a phrase that now appears in one form or another in state laws across the country.
Keep that in mind next time someone declares that labeling someone “mentally ill” is a good response to a problem.