This past year, I read countless books; many stuck with me, but two in particular that highlighted how we have swept mental health problems under the rug for decades. The first book is The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions by Jonathan Rosen. The second book is While You Were Out, An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence by Meg Kissinger. Both memoirs provide insight into the vastly underfinanced, poorly made decisions and laws made by the US government that are misunderstood at multiple levels.
Best Minds is a brilliant read. Rosen tells the story of Michael, whom he grew up with. A brilliant mind was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 24. He has the support of his family, his wife, and friends, but not enough to keep him from having a complete breakdown that changes everything.
Rosen is a journalist, so every other chapter highlights Government decisions made, starting with the last bill that Kennedy signed before being murdered three weeks later. Kennedy saw mental health up close as his sister, Rosemary, was given a lobotomy at age 23 due to her seizures and outbursts. He also witnessed horrific mental health hospitals. The law he passed, The Community Mental Health Act, attempted to embrace a new vision where people would not end up in these mental health institutions. Unfortunately, nothing much has been done since, and many people with mental health problems without any support (or even sometimes with support) end up in jail, hospitals, and homeless shelters.
The reality is there is an intermediate zone for many people suffering from mental health. At times, these adults, who legally make their own decisions, have the wherewithal to do that, but when they go off the deep end, they do not. Rosen’s friend Michael, who came from a caring, loving family who made it a priority to keep him well, couldn’t even keep him from a horrific crime he committed while he was lost in his brain.
Kissinger’s family grew up in the 1960s. Her mother would drop in and out of the family life and be put into a hospital for periods of time, although nothing was discussed with the children. She would return heavily medicated, and life would go on. Her father was a heavy drinker prone to violence. Her family grew up in the burbs of Chicago with eight children and two loving parents with serious mental health issues.
As the children grew, many of them had bipolar disorder and depression, like their parents. Help was not available, and their sorrow was an unspoken rule. Horrific tragedies happen. Kissinger, also a journalist, has focused on the consequences of the country’s flawed health system her entire career, and her personal memoir packs a powerful punch.
These days, the reality of the strength of our Government appears to be dysfunctional at best. Reading these books and seeing the pain and fear of people I see on the urban streets of LA and NYC is heartbreaking and scary. Perhaps if Kennedy had lived, he would have passed more laws giving a safety net for the family and friends that Kissinger and Rosen eloquently write about.
I highly recommend reading both books in 2024, starting with Rosen’s book.