The value of a mentally sound society

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Tim Trenkle, guest columnist

He said he was 58 years old. He had been in the Navy and he was raised in East Dubuque, IL. He said his brother would take care of him.

“Yeah, oh ... yeah, I have schizophrenia,” he added.

Standing on a scuffed blue tile floor, his eyes as flat as the dull blue tiles, he shook his leg, bouncing from foot to foot. He wore a red T-shirt with stars and an image of Mickey Mouse. His hair was knotted. He smelled like tobacco.

“My brother’s in Tacoma. If I could get a bus ticket ... do you know where I can get a ticket?” He looked pale and tired and worn down.

“My brother said he would help me and he can be my payee.”

It was early morning and the man had been sleeping on the street for two nights. The hospital had kept him for a night then released him like a Walleye from the river. His hands shook. He stooped.

Without money he relied on the Dubuque missions and churches to sustain him. He held a Styrofoam coffee cup and placed one hand over the hot coffee. He pulled a cellphone from a pocket.

“Hey, do you have any money for me, you know I got discharged ... I’ll call you back about noon, OK then ... thank you.” He spoke to a member of the social service network.

He went to a shelter where he was given a meal. He sat in a chapel where he could feel the cool air conditioning and shade. Outside, it was 90 degrees and the humidity the same. He slumped in a chair and waited.

“Could I have more coffee?” He asked. He sat quietly and sipped.

“Could you find a place for me? Could I have a place tonight?” His voice quaked.

In the shelter system mental illness is not an offense unless it’s accompanied by alcohol, drug use or aggression; unless crime or invasion of another raises itself; the system with enough beds will accommodate. But today the system is overwhelmed.

Across Iowa the mentally ill are given help in emergency rooms. Sometimes they are admitted to a psychiatric unit and sometimes given temporary aid for their hallucinations, delusions and paranoias. But this temporary aid cannot be a long-term fix for homelessness.

United States presidents have talked about the mentally ill as pebbles on the ocean, causing waves that lead to lost productivity, rupture of family and unease in the community. The larger costs in economic value to state and nation are difficult to quantify.

President John F. Kennedy once referred to these needs as justifying programs that addressed the great value of a society that is mentally sound, therefore spiritually strong.

This focus is not on spending or waste, but on getting people back to a place where they can contribute to society; where their income from the work they are able to do adds to the local economy.

This only can be possible if we invest the resources and preventive maintenance that is necessary for living — from crisis to housing, from emergency room to shelters near supportive networks.

It only can be possible if we recognize that each person is a member of a family, a community and a nation and his welfare should matter to us all.

• Tim Trenkle teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College. Comments: trenklet@nicc.edu

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