'Bedlam' Offers Insight into the Horrors of Mental Illness in America

There is no relief for the mentally ill in America.

Upper East Films

The American streets are screaming, but after a lifetime of speeding from point A to point B, I have developed a willful ignorance. I hear the man shouting at the bus stop. I see the woman hurriedly dancing to the music of her mind. I drop a bill into their cups. I keep stepping.

Where did these people come from? Who can help them if not me on my way to Point B? Do I actually care? Would I if I knew that mumbler? Good questions, but I got my own worries.

According to a study published by Harvard two years ago, 45 percent of the homeless population suffers from a mental illness. They are dumped onto the streets after short bursts in the ER or the county jail. Shelters are limited, federal compassion even less so. If we can’t be bothered, our government sure as hell won’t acknowledge these people as anything more than an occasional nuisance. 

Psychiatrist Kenneth Rosenberg experienced this societal neglect first-hand when his sister Merle was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. A sense of shame infected the family, encouraging them to mislabel, hide, and ignore the genetic problem. Steeped in guilt over the course Merle took post-diagnosis, Rosenberg picked up a camera to confront America’s desperate blindness for the mentally ill.

Bedlam takes its title from the notorious asylum officially known as the Bethlem Royal Hospital constructed in 1247 in London, England, during the reign of Henry III. Over the years, its walls contained numerous horrors of the deteriorating mind, and its legend grew as these sorrowful tales became the source of plays, novels, and movies. The hospital was designed as a house of learning, healing, and enlightenment. These are noble notions that crumbled under the weight of society’s exhaustion, and an indicator of where all such optimistic outreach eventually dies.

Rosenberg’s documentary is a stern takedown of America’s current criminalized banishment of a sickness that affects over 44 million of its citizens. The director follows several subjects throughout a five year stretch with each person bouncing between medication and a cell. Some enjoy the benefit of familial solidarity while others are ground down into a system that cannot afford more than temporary care.

Here is a small sample size highlighting the tragic catastrophe that occurred during the last days of the 1960s when long-term federally funded health care facilities were demolished, and state treatment took over offering respite not for the patient but the society affected by their uncontrollable outbursts. Out of sight, out of mind.

Rosenberg rages at the fallacy of this arrangement. The psyche ER cannot detain anyone more than 24 hours, allowing for a spree of pills, a “good luck” on the way out, and not much else. Those condemned to a prison cell find masters without the training, the room, and often a lack of compassion. Their stays are the stuff of nightmares, and usually don’t last long as overcrowding pushes them back out into the world where they’ll fall from necessary medication and explode in ferocious, confused tantrums.

Mental illness is scary. When we encounter the screaming individual outside our 7/11, we want to get as far away from them as possible. Someone has got to take care of that guy. Not me, but someone. What Bedlam exposes is an utter lack of relief for any of us. The patient has no doctor. There is no place for them to go, and if we don’t take responsibility for their care, then the streets will forever scream with their misery. Our self-prescribed ignorance poisons everything.