I watch a lot of television. Always have.
In fact, on some level of my subconscious, the mere mention of Tuesday night forever translates to Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.
At overlapping times in my life, I have been deeply in love with both Hardy Boys, Johnny Gage, Tommy Bradford, Chachi, Salami, James at 15 and James at 16.
I can trace my slow path toward maturity by Friday nights with Wonder Woman, Donny and Marie, Bo and Luke Duke, Quincy and, eventually, JR Ewing. You don’t have to be Columbo to deduce that I didn’t get out much.
Now, with the advent of DVR and Netflix and all the amazing shows on TV, it’s astounding that I leave the couch at all. To be honest, on more than one occasion, the lines have blurred between my real life and the lives of my television friends.
I was once in an event cocktail hour conversation with a person who shared news of a somewhat unusual medical diagnosis given to a family member. In the course of the conversation, I asked about a specific treatment option and a barrage of questions met my inquiry. How did I know about that? Did I know someone who had this diagnosis? Did they take that course of treatment despite the documented risks?
I stammered trying to remember how I even knew of this disease. Who has it? Did I just read about it somewhere? My cheeks began to redden as I slowly came to realize…it was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Using a shrewdness characteristic of LA Law’s Arnie Becker, I quickly extricated myself from that conversation, and our paths have never crossed again.
I am not proud of that story. Even more so, I wish it were the only one of its kind I could tell.
This week, however, I find myself the victim of the collision of my real world and my television world. And it has left me feeling ever more desperate yet strangely comforted.
In the huge inventory of good television, Blue Bloods is consistently at the top of my list. Believable characters intertwine through thrilling storylines. It honors a life of public service but doesn’t shy away from addressing professional failure and weakness. The same balance is offered in the way the Catholic Church is presented. While some may consider it cheesy, the concept of family is held in highest regard with Sunday dinner being a part of every episode.
The Reagan family likes their coffee, their red wine, their beer and their scotch. And I like them. The only conflicting thing about the show is that I find the dad and both brothers equally attractive. The minute the grandpa or the little boys start looking good, I’ll change the channel.
One storyline in Friday’s episode involved Officer Jamie Reagan crossing paths with a delusional woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Her loving father shared the girl’s life story that included the death of her mother and his attempt, as caregiver, to find the help she needed. As the hour unfolded, viewers were witness to an overworked and ill-equipped Department of Mental Health and learned of the exorbitant and cost-prohibitive expense of care in a private hospital. Jamie asked his Dad, the police commissioner, to consider setting up an advisory committee of leaders from the John Jay Institute, Paine Whitney, the Department of Health and Human Services and those on the front lines to study how we can do a better job in dealing with the mentally ill.
This episode hit home.
My brother faces each day with mental illness. He successfully maintained a job for much of his life, but as he’s grown older, the approach to his care has shifted sails with each emotional trauma he faced. In the last five years, he’s received four different diagnoses, one of which was the umbrella of schizoaffective disorder. He’s had five hospitalizations and six different psychiatrists. He’s been in support groups twice a week. He’s received care in both the expensive private pay hospitals and those covered by insurance.
I’ve been witness to it all. And I can say, beyond a shadow of doubt, the mental health care system is broken.
Hospitals put up hurdle after hurdle while standing on their HIPAA soapbox, yet don’t hesitate to take detailed patient histories in crowded hallways. The family is rarely considered the unit of care, leaving providers to rely on a patient’s self-reporting of a problem and loved ones feeling helpless and out of the loop. Inpatient psychiatric units exude the aura of prison, and the reflection on the patient feels punitive rather than restorative. In the world of mental health care, providers would often rather refer than treat, and there is no question that in this world, pharmacology is creator, redeemer and king.
The front-page article of Sunday’s New York Times tells the story of a man named George Bell who died alone in a setting that left no question of his battle with mental illness. Some may wonder, “How could this ever happen?” I, sadly, read the story easily visualizing the path George Bell traveled. And for a split second, I found myself actually thinking, “New York needs Jamie Reagan’s Advisory Committee now more than ever.”
Rather than being disheartened by the collision of my real and pretend worlds, I chose to be encouraged that a story so prominently discussing mental illness was not just placed above the fold of the front page of the Sunday New York Times, but filled almost five complete pages of copy.
Step one. Erase the stigma of mental illness by bringing it into the forefront of our conversation.
Step two. Fix the system.
Unfortunately, we can’t count on a TV character to do that for us. Even if his Dad used to be Magnum P.I.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have the strength to take on writing that book; but if someday I do, I just pray it has a happy ending.