Is a time of isolation, of self-confinement – of keeping even family and friends at a distance beyond breath and touch – the right moment to ask viewers of PBS SoCal’s ‘Independent Lens’ series to take a troubling journey through the city’s overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded mental health system? Based upon the number of occupants with mental health disorders, the Los Angeles County Jail is the largest mental health institution in the United States.
In Bedlam (airing tonight, Monday, April 13 at 10:00PM – check your local cable provider for channels and additional showings) psychiatrist and filmmaker Kenneth Rosenberg tosses what Psychology Today calls, ‘A stick of dynamite into the dark and troubled history of care for those with serious mental illness’. The explosion from that dynamite arrives right about the time we realize that the strategy, if we want to label the current system as something other than abject neglect, is to deny the mental health aspects of the circumstances that effect 1 in 5 American adults – until they do something that turns them into criminals. Because, after all, criminalization and incarceration, particularly of the poor and the racially diverse, is something we know how to do really well in this country.
Rosenberg intermingles his own family story of a beloved sister who became paranoid, delusional and suffered from hallucinations (and so led him on his path to a career in psychiatry), with those of three southern Californians who travel rudderless on a sometimes listless, sometimes raging stream that flows between family care, public housing, jail, institutional confinement and homelessness. In a project that took seven years to plan, compose, film and complete Rosenberg keeps every shot, every moment, every outrage and every tear, in the fearful, the terrible and the sometimes poignant – now. DP Joan Churchill, ASC (No Nukes, Gimme Shelter and Jimi Plays Berkeley – which she directed), editor Jim Cricchi and Alan Barker, sound, keep the film and each of the stories coherent, cohesive and compelling. Akira Kurosawa wrote that ‘ the role of the artist is to not look away’. Somehow Rosenberg and his team take moments that any of us might find hard to witness in person and do more than simply show us, they make us part of them. They give us a clear witness into clouded lives and compel us to care.
Some damning statistics: Funding for mental health care has decreased by 90% in the past
15 years. 50% of patients being treated for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or depression stop taking their medications within one year. And if you have ever been a parent, or a child – hearing an 11 year old speak frankly about wanting to hurt herself . . . well, at that point it becomes hard to blame race, or economic status or any of the frequently employed easy outs like laziness or drugs that opinion writers or political commentators like to toss about. ‘It’ is an illness. It can and does strike anywhere. And as a society we don’t do very much about it – except wait for the victims to cross a hard and fast enough line that we can jail them.
So back to my opening question – are we so distracted by our present circumstances that there is no room left to take on one more dilemma? The more I watched Bedlam and the more I understood the randomness with which mental illness strikes 20% of our country’s citizens (which really means, just about each of our families, doesn’t it?), the less fear or concern I felt about my own current situation. When Viktor Frankl was asked about what he would do if he knew he was thirty minutes from a crisis he answered, ‘Find someone who needed my help.’
There is more than one ball we’ve been tossed to juggle here in the City of Angels, circa April 2020. And I am not suggesting anyone do anything that would be unsafe for themselves, their coworkers, their neighbors or their families. But there is going to be another side to this current crisis. And my guess is most of us are going to come out of it with a renewed sense of pride in our community and in our capabilities. We might even be looking for chance or a way to productively maintain our newly won right to connect with other similarly inspired neighbors.
Bedlam doesn’t ask you for money or time. Like Kurosawa it just asks that you don’t look away. Like Frankl, you’ll have a survivor’s heart. You’ll figure out what to do next.
Directed by : Kenneth Paul Rosenberg
Written and Produced by: Kenneth Paul Rosenberg and Peter Miller