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A Father (of a homeless, schizophrenic son) and Former Legislator Realizes the Mistakes Made on Behalf of the Mentally Ill

This is an enlightening and touching story by Paul Gionfriddo – written from the point of view of a father who became a mental health policy expert — that I highly recommend to anyone concerned about how we treat mental disorders in this society.

Gionfriddo begins with his son’s story…

If you were to encounter my son, Tim, a tall, gaunt, twenty-seven-year-old man in ragged clothes, on a San Francisco street, you might step away from him. His clothes; his dark, unshaven face; and his wild, curly hair stamp him as the stereotype of the chronically mentally ill street person.

People are afraid of what they see when they glance at Tim. Policy makers pass ordinances to keep people who look like Tim at arm’s length. But when you look just a little more closely, what you find is a young man with deep brown eyes, a sly smile, quick wit, and an inquisitive mind, who—at the times he’s healthy—bears a striking resemblance to the youthful Muhammad Ali.

Tim is homeless. But when Tim was a youngster, toddling around our home, my colleagues in the Connecticut state legislature couldn’t get enough of cuddling him. Yet it’s the policies of my generation of policy makers that put that adorable toddler—now a troubled adult, six feet, five inches tall—on the street. And unless something changes, the policies of today’s generation of policy makers are what will keep him there.

Further into the article, Gionfriddo details his later in life realizations about serious mistakes he and other legislators made in developing laws and policies intended to help people living with mental illness, which in fact made their lives far worse. He attributes these errors to a lack of a thorough understanding of what people in recovery actually need — and often don’t receive. In the article he corrects these misconceptions.

Here’s a sample:

First, we didn’t understand how poorly prepared the public school systems were to educate children with serious mental illnesses in regular schools and classrooms. Second, we didn’t adequately fund community agencies to meet the new demand for community mental health services—ultimately forcing our county jails to fill the void. And third, we didn’t realize how important it would be to create collaborations among educators, primary care clinicians, mental health professionals, social services providers, and even members of the criminal justice system, if people with serious mental illnesses were to have a reasonable chance of living successfully in the community.

The Mental health movement is lucky to have such a man on our side. Please read the whole article at Health Affairs, titled “How I Helped Create a Flawed Mental Health System That’s Failed Millions — and My Son”

2 responses to “A Father (of a homeless, schizophrenic son) and Former Legislator Realizes the Mistakes Made on Behalf of the Mentally Ill

  1. Wow. I just read the whole article by Mr. Gionfriddo and my heart goes out to him and his family. The ideas he would implement now, as discussed in the last paragraphs of his writing, should be taken seriously. We can and should do better for those with mental illness.

  2. I am so glad Mr. Gionfriddo wrote this article and is trying to address the problems his family experienced. Thank goodness he has made the connection between his son’s experiences, and the larger problem of mental illness in America. The fact that he is trying to correct the problem by suggesting policy solutions is so hopeful. I hope many people see his article and that more policy makers, teachers and doctors start to follow suggestions like the ones he has made!

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