“No One Cares About Crazy People”: As True As Ever

[Ron] Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” Kirkus Reviews, about No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America (2017)

No One Cares About Crazy People was written before all the recent outrageous attempts to decimate the Affordable Care Act. Just imagine the additional things author Ron Powers could say now.

Powers writes about his two sons afflicted with schizophrenia. “For his son Kevin, that struggle ended in suicide, and the heartbreak of that experience (among others) permeates every impersonal date and statistic in the book with sorrow and rage” (Shelf Awareness). Son Dean is still in treatment.

As told to Terry Gross (NPR), “There is no greater…feeling of helplessness than to watch two beloved sons deteriorate before [your] eyes, not knowing what to do to bring them back.”

A brief explanation for the title as well as a book synopsis, per Publishers Weekly:

This resounding rebuke to scornful attitudes toward the mentally ill takes its title from a notably insensitive 2010 email exchange between high-level staffers of Scott Walker during his run for Wisconsin governor. Using that moment as a touchstone of indifference, Powers…weaves a dual tale of the personal and the political. In one thread, he traces the history of public efforts to ameliorate (or, more often, hide) the plight of those living with mental illness, from London’s infamous Bedlam in the 18th and 19th centuries, where wealthy visitors were charged admission to gawk at the inmates, to America’s present-day prison-industrial complex. In the other, he tells his own family’s heartrending story of grappling with disease…

Although drug therapy can be helpful, Powers believes, “(h)e recognizes that ‘Big Pharma’ has made money distributing drugs of questionable usefulness” (Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch).

A couple things Powers deems pointedly not helpful:

  • Deinstitutionalization: Many inpatient facilities closed in the 1960’s in favor of caring for patients in community mental health centers. If well-meaning, it also failed many who wound up in prisons.
  • Anosognosia (“The false conviction within a person that nothing is wrong with his mind”) is ignored by laws that prevent involuntary commitment to mental health facilities.

If indeed “no one cares about crazy people,” Powers means people other than their loved ones, of course. From Shelf Awareness: “For the families of the mentally ill…caring about ‘crazy people’ is a necessity. In roughly alternating chapters, Powers allows us to watch his sons grow up, dealing with the challenges of incipient schizophrenia as well as tragic events that shape their young minds. All the while, Powers movingly relates the joys of raising creatively gifted children.”

The critique by Ron Suskind, New York Times, offers a fitting conclusion for this post:

No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change. But its clumsy title…is painfully correct. The mentally ill are still viewed with fear or suspicion, as broken, as damaged goods or objects of pity. Still, Powers will surely help to correct that perspective; it’s impossible to read his book without being overcome by empathy for his family, respect for his two beleaguered boys and, by the end, faith in the resilience of the human heart.

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