Faith Works 10-17-15
A safe place to go
"Arsenic and Old Lace" is opening at Licking County Players this weekend. It's a funny, frenetic play about a family, one that has some, um, mental health issues in it.
It's one of my favorite plays, which tells you my tastes aren't quite Shakespearean; another of my most beloved stage productions is "Harvey" and not just because I so enjoyed watching my brother Brian play Elwood P. Dowd at our high school a few (hah!) years ago.
"Harvey" and "Arsenic" come from either end of the World War II era, and they have certain qualities that identify them as being of that time and place in American life, not least of which is that, while life is fairly modern in some ways, communications are still a bit rudimentary. Transportation is motorized, but with some qualifications. And then there's that question of mental health in both shows.
Central to the plots of each (no spoilers here!) is the reality of having someone "put away" in an asylum or institution of some sort. If the right relatives come together and file the right paperwork, you can have someone carried off by those legendary "nice young men in their clean white coats."
And if you have an ear to cultural trends in dramatic dialogue, you might just pick up on the fact that between 1939 and 1944 the United States was not feeling terribly good about the whole process. Maybe even there's a theatrical sense here that it was simply too easy, and too few professional checks and balances were involved, and that good if eccentric people could be taken advantage of by sharp operators or greedy relations.
As a pastor, I've heard enough true stories from family members of those days to believe that it was, in fact, a process that was open to abuse and misuse, sometimes with good intentions but not occasionally because some younger folk got tired of waiting for Great Aunt Hattie to kick off and inherit her house.
So things changed. Commitment, and especially involuntary commitment, became much more challenging. The standard became one of "threat of harm to self or others," and that threat had to be fairly imminent.
Now I can also say, as any pastor or church leader can probably tell you, it's not unusual these days to be asked to join in an awkward family conversation about "taking the car keys," or even "it's time to leave this house and move somewhere you can be safe." Sometimes those conversations are expected, more than younger family realized, and they go well; other times, you start to see signs of what adult children and grandchildren have been seeing, and the concern grows even as the resistance to any change hardens. But you can't force the situation, and everyone leaves the meeting a little more worried.
But I wouldn't go back. The idea that any two or three nieces and nephews being able to put a senior citizen into confinement and getting to dispose of their property was never a good situation, and while I've had my own moments of "wishing" I could just force a circumstance, those days of institutions for people who believe they have tall invisible sentient rabbits talking to them are long gone.
We have a renewal coming up in a couple of weeks for the county Mental Health and Recovery levy on Election Day. I have no concerns about Licking County affirming the work that's being done right now, in emergency services and available care. The agencies that serve the mental health needs of our area work hard, do well, and help people reach recovery and stability every day.
Beyond that, I do wonder about what it will take to extend services, to make mental & behavioral health a more fully integrated part of our overall health system. There are conversations going on right now in our United Way task forces and community boards and various constituency groups to look at how we align and combine services, so that physical health and healing can be seen as a whole, with not only mental health but spiritual health and community health all playing their part in also seeing our bodies and our lives and our families find healing and wholeness.
A broken leg calls for certain interventions, and ongoing care, and some awareness even after the cast is off; an emotional or cognitive ailment needs much the same, and they can show up together (think of after a car accident, for instance), with interventions & care & awareness bringing healing to the whole self. An institution is still not going to be the answer for many, for most.
It's about a healthy community, and that will take all of us.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what stories have helped you understand wholeness in your life at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.