NAMI Ventura County, a local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, sponsored a public screening last Friday of the documentary A Revolving Door about a 33-year-old man from Ventura named Tommy Lennon, who was diagnosed as mentally ill and a drug addict. Tommy, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in his teens from a surfing accident, is on the path of a seemingly endless cycle of homelessness, drug addiction, mental institutions and jails. Tommy’s family is relentless in the pursuit to get him treatment and, at the very least, accommodate him the best they can as he battles manic depression, often throwing his family proverbial emotional curve balls.
Tommy looks healthy, even handsome — he did have a child with a lovely young woman after his surfing accident. But appearances are deceiving. While one person sees the charismatic, loving side of Tommy, others see a darker side — a side where he yells and screams, throws fits, ranting about nonsense, and talks about hearing voices and so forth. It is a strange dichotomy where one person is split into two individuals — one wants help, will take his medicine and loves his family, and the other wants to do his own thing and lives in a delusional state of mind.
The problem with Tommy, however, is not his mental illness. His illness can be treated. The failure to communicate is the real issue at hand — from the parents to the treatment provider to the client/patient and around and back again. This includes a recent incident where Tommy told his mother that he was hearing voices, but denied he said such a thing when his doctor asked him about it. The almost literal three-ring circus has left Tommy vulnerable; he’s been to jail and prison numerous times. At one point while in prison, he was put into solitary confinement for five months for being disruptive — the main excuse was that he had been singing continuously. During his stint in solitary confinement, he had a psychotic break and began to believe his life was being filmed by satellite.
But Tommy isn’t alone. He is only one of thousands across the country who have slipped through the system. In a recent survey done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 76 percent to 81 percent of mentally ill inmates currently in local jails, and federal and state prisons, have previous convictions. (Seventy-one percent to 79 percent of other inmates in local jails, and state and federal prisons have prior convictions.) While these statistics show that most criminals, sane or otherwise, are prone to repeat the same mistakes, experts say that if those with a mental illness are treated, they can lead normal and productive lives and stay out of jail.
Since the 1970s and ’80s when Ronald Reagan shut down numerous mental institutions, jails and prisons have become the new mental institutions, warehousing thousands of mentally ill patients who have little to no access to proper treatment.
In order to stop this vicious cycle of prisons, hospitals and homelessness, we must turn back the clock and focus on diagnosis and treatment. Although it is a costly endeavor, estimated at $1,345 a day at the county psychiatric unit, the time, money and energy spent on rehabilitating mentally ill patients and managing them on medicine is invaluable to not only those patients, but to society as a whole. In addition, keeping just one mentally ill person off the streets and in public housing saves taxpayers an average of roughly $40,000 a year, according to a recent United Way survey.
We believe that there is no excuse for leaving our compassion and humanity at the door when it comes to people like Tommy. It is our responsibility to help parents like Debbie and advocate for better legislation and programs that will focus on treating the mentally ill, and not treating them like expendable objects.