The Social Cure For Mental Illness

"Everyone is much more simply human than otherwise." - Harry Stack Sullivan

The United States is the worst place in the developed world to have a severe mental illness.

By failing to provide adequate care and housing, we have condemned 350,000 to jails and 250,000 to the streets.

Paradoxically, we have very much destigmatized mild mental illness by greatly broadening its definition. It certainly takes the sting out of having a mental disorder diagnosis when 20 percent of our population pops a psychiatric pill every day.

In contrast, the severely ill have never been so unfairly stigmatized. We have closed 90 percent of psychiatric beds, but didn't invest the money saved in decent community treatment and housing. Without social ties and without access to medication, the severely ill seem much more disturbed than they really are.

As Aristotle pointed out, we are social animals who can be fully human only when interacting with others. In the US, we worsen the symptoms of our mentally ill by neglecting their needs and excluding them from society. Fortunately, the reciprocal is also true -- we can heal by simple human acts of caring and inclusion.

Virgil Stucker has spent almost his entire adult life in therapeutic communities that encourage the resocialization and recovery of people with severe mental illness. He is the director of the CooperRiis Healing Community in Asheville, NC.

Virgil writes:

"I have lived most of the last 40 years in nonprofit healing communities with people who are diagnosed with mental illness. My family and I often walk with, dine with, socialize with, work with, and play with people who too often are treated as society's castaways.

Over these years, my wife Lis and I have had several thousand such people join us at our daily table. We, along with our four children, their spouses and partners, and our seven grandchildren are fortunate to have formed lifelong friendships and life-altering experiences.

We know first-hand that people with mental illness are much more human than otherwise; trusting and loving human beings, if only given the chance and offered the social context.

There are so many moments that have graced our lives with special meaning. I remember with great relief and gratitude when our young son Christoph wandered into a brook and was about to drown until he was saved by Franko, a member of our community.

My wife was in the Gould Farm weaving studio when news came to James that his sister had died on the Pan Am 103 flight, blown up by terrorists over Lockerbie. His deeply human experience of loss cemented our relationship with James, who went on to found a statewide recovery program in Virginia and became a peer support specialist for a prestigious hospital. He was at our table for lunch recently, remembering with sadness that moment and with fondness our lifetime relationship.

Elaine joined as a resident 8 years ago in our CooperRiis Healing Community. The combination of addiction and mental illness had derailed her. Three years ago, she came back... and is now our Marketing Director (actually our whole marketing department). I get to speak daily with her about her passion for helping others to recover normal lives despite their 'severe mental illness'. (Here's a letter she recently wrote about her story.)

Just yesterday, Dan, who came to our Gould Farm community in 1977 with schizophrenia called to wish us a Merry Christmas. He still has schizophrenia, but is living an independent life, now retired in Florida. We love to catch up with many old friends in this way during the holidays.

After the call, I turned to speak with Emelia who has become a member of our 'family' and is about to return to her career as a well-known artist.

She joined us in church last week where Ralph, a former resident sings in the choir. Ralph now lives independently in our small town, working and owning his own condo. Years ago, his family came to us with hope; hope that there was more than the dead-end group home that the mental health 'system' had prescribed for him.

Thinking of music, I am reminded of Jason DeShaw, a well-known country singer, who recently spent three days at our 'table'. His story will encourage you.

I am but one person, and my family but one family. We have been blessed to know and be inspired by many people with mental illness. Over the years, we have also been blessed to know their families, who turned their anguish about the mental illness of a family member into action. We are daily inspired by Don and Lisbeth Cooper, the founding philanthropists of the CooperRiis Healing Community. We have also walked with philanthropists Dan and Rosemary Kelly of Rose Hill Center, Carol and William Moore of Gateway Homes, and, spiritually, with Will and Agnes Gould who founded Gould Farm in 1913. Each knows the healing power of community and relationship.

You, too, as an individual and as a family, can begin to create a healing community, right where you are, right now. Here is a 3-minute video about our CooperRiis Healing Community that may inspire you.

From Muslims to Minorities, from Military Vets to the Mentally Ill, our fears have too often surrounded us with 'Others'... Others who Matter only because we are afraid of them! Goodness, let's cross these divides with compassionate dialogue and listening, not labeling!

When we bring our prejudices to the table, we see only the 'other', the sick person. We don't see the human being, only a small part of whom is 'sick.' Our lives are diminished whenever we are exclusionary and close-minded. Our lives are enriched when we enrich the lives of others.

This holiday season; please invite someone with mental illness from the streets into your home. Bring them from the last pew in your congregation into the conversation. Reach out to your neighbor who has a mentally ill child and show them your empathy.

Yes, I am serious. The only real solution is to restore healing community to every street. Think of every street as 34th Street ready to have a Miracle. Let's pull one another out of the darkness.

The time to start is right now. Reach out now and create compassionate conversations with individuals coping with mental health conditions. Your life and theirs will be better for it. You will discover the depth of your own humanity, not just theirs."

Thanks so much Virgil. Your approach to life and to people is an inspiration to all of us.

It happens that my wife and I will be spending our Christmas with children, grandchildren, and Jan, our best friend in San Diego. Jan has been homeless for almost 20 years.

It is not the life he would have chosen, but it is a life he leads with quiet dignity and considerable joy. Jan survives on about $1,000 a year, earned by occasional participation in a workfare program. He also gets one free meal a day and food stamps.

Jan is an independent scholar who -- when not walking or listening to music or watching movies, or following current events -- spends most of his waking minutes studying in libraries and bookstores.

Jan knows more about more topics than anyone I have ever met and he finds fascinating connections everywhere. Bring up the Trump phenomenon and he will compare it in minute and fascinating detail with the emergence of Mussolini. Bring up the movie No Country for Old Men and he will trace its roots in the work of the French existentialists. Bring up Madonna and he will contrast her musicology with Ella Fitzgerald.

Being with Jan is pure pleasure for us. He is funny, thoughtful, and has refined manners that put me and the rest of our family to shame. He enjoys his time with us, but also enjoys the free time afforded by his otherwise socially isolated lifestyle. My wife occasionally tries to persuade Jan to apply for housing, but he is too proud and too independent.

Jan is satisfied with his life and I am grateful for his friendship. He is one of the most fully human people I know.

Allen Frances is a professor emeritus at Duke University and was the chairman of the DSM-IV task force.