The very last person who visited the Treatment Advocacy Center's booth on the very last day of the NAMI 2012 convention in Seattle was a warm and friendly woman who, upon spotting my name tag, reached across the high table that held our materials to shake my hand and say, "Congratulations!"
I was impressed that she followed our news and developments closely enough to know I was our still relatively new executive director and was happy to meet still another supporter. One of the delights of attending NAMI is putting faces to names and voices and hearing so many people say, "I love what you guys do! Thank you!"
But this visitor didn't love what we do. She remained friendly as she told us that she doesn't like founder E. Fuller Torrey, and she doesn't like us. She said she follows us because she likes to know what we're doing to promote involuntary treatment, which she doesn't like at all.
She was the only opponent I'd met at this booth this year so I asked her one of the questions I always have when I meet people who oppose court-ordered treatment: "Then what do you do, for example, to help the homeless person who is delusional, hungry, filthy and so ill he wouldn't seek care even if the best treatment in the world was just behind the door on whose step he was sleeping?"
There was a pause. "I don't know," she said. And then, after a bit of deliberation, she mentioned respecting and identifying each individual's needs by talking to the person about what he or she wants.
There are an estimated 3.3 million people living with untreated schizophrenia or severe bipolar living in this country today. The most conservative estimate of inmates with severe mental illness in jails and prisons is running at about 350,000, many of them in solitary confinement. Nearly 200,000 of the men and women who will sleep on the streets tonight are estimated to be suffering severe, untreated mental illness. An untold number of people who are acutely ill also are sitting in hospital ERs right now, handcuffed to gurneys or otherwise restrained because they are unsafe to themselves or others but can't be hospitalized because there are no psychiatric beds for them.
We respect their needs. That's why we advocate for improved civil commitment laws and their widespread implementation. We want these people, too, to enjoy the stability that makes it possible for people who themselves once were acutely ill to recover so much they are able to become our opponents.