A couple of nights ago, at an hour when no one in their right mind should be up and about, a guy dowsed himself with a couple of cups of gasoline, lit himself on fire and died. From what I know, he wasn’t mad at the world, wasn’t trying to make a political statement, and, by all accounts, didn’t fully understand the consequences of his actions. He was just crazy, that’s all. What do we do with poor crazy people? Insurance covers almost nothing at all, if one has insurance. Combinations of mental illness and poverty leave many living at the dark edges of society, unemployed, unemployable, and generally ignored as long as they are not a danger to themselves or others. Street drugs and cheap booze often become the medications of choice partly because that’s what’s available.
This guy was not a danger to himself or others, not until a couple of nights ago.
The story was a short two-paragraph blurb in the local paper. By the end of next week no one will remember or care, except for the medics who could not save him and the police who are trying to piece together his story. They won’t forget because it was too gruesome to forget. I imagine that will be the same for the few onlookers who emerged from somewhere out of the night. For the rest of us, he is just another throw-away human being. We never knew he was there, and his passing will have no impact on our lives.
We have a half dozen very effective non-profit organizations in town who take seriously their work with the impoverished mentally ill, but there’s a limit to what they can do that begins and ends with those who are able to voluntarily seek and receive help.
That’s not right. It’s not right that good mental health care is a restricted commodity. It’s not right that a nation of our wealth and ideals can be so oblivious to throw-away people. It’s not right that the health care debate in congress is more about protecting the insurance industry than it is about health care. It’s not right that, in the name of civil liberty, we simply let the impoverished mentally ill self-destruct. It could be that other nations do no better or even worse, and that’s not right either.