Lessons never learned

I thought about taking my column in at least five different directions this week, but a story I found in The Des Moines Register made me do a double take. I try to believe that people, regardless of their personal shortcomings and human tendencies, are overwhelmingly good, just and empathetic, and then I read headlines that make me wonder if I’ve been wrong all along.


Clive neighbors’ hostility to psych hospital dismays mental health advocates

An 8-year-old boy raises his hand when the mayor calls on him to ask why he’s concerned about a proposal to put a psychiatric hospital in a Clive neighborhood.


“The disease could spread,” he said.


Of course, this isn’t the kid’s fault. Like racism, sexism and the rest of the -isms, his irrational belief had to come from somewhere. But in case you had any doubts, the residents of an educated, affluent Des Moines suburb have resorted to Red Scare era fear mongering tactics in an attempt to stymie legitimate progress and dismantle Mercy’s effort to deal with the fact that the state will probably never reopen the two facilities Terry Branstad decided we didn’t need anymore.


Well, why do you care, Rob? It’s not like you live nearby, and it’s not like it affects you. To refute both points, I could very well end up in a building like that someday—there’s a long history of mental illness in my family, and I’m a writer. Haven’t you seen “The Shining?”


Second, my parents reside two miles away from the proposed site, and if they ever told me they wouldn’t welcome individuals seeking help to the neighborhood, I’d seriously question the kind of people they were and turn away in disgust.


This is a nation that pretends to care about preventing mass shootings whenever the latest tragedy is plastered across TV screens from Miami to Seattle, but a group of NIMBY worry warts (those familiar with wind farm debates may recognize the acronym) can’t be bothered to do anything constructive because the undesirables could make them uncomfortable.


In what may be a perfect encapsulation of suburban paranoia culture, these high-class folks are imagining “The Hills Have Eyes”unfolding the second schizophrenic Steve or bummed out Betty checks in to the unit. Say what you want about small towns, but we’ve by and large adopted a “live and let live” ethos save for a few extreme examples—and we would welcome any project that could serve the greater good, increase the tax base and create jobs without any real side effects or detriments besides an imagined zombie apocalypse. “The Walking Dead” is fiction, people.


I hope that this unfounded phobia gets the widespread condemnation it deserves and—much like the news of families being separated at the southern border—encourages a larger moral reckoning of sorts. But even compared to that ordeal, mentally ill individuals are not facing the hurdles of immigration law, a strong anti-amnesty lobby and federal agents with free rein to treat them like animals if they so please. Everyone agrees that these people are American citizens and need help, so why can’t we provide it?


Because it costs money, and cash rules everything. Why else would the facilities in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant be closed? Anything for the bottom line, right? Well, if Iowa’s politicians learn anything through all of this, I hope it’s that saving a dollar today could easily end up costing you 10 tomorrow.


If the hysterical homeowner’s association rule sticklers and PTA moms shut this down, it will be their shame, and any moral high ground they try to claim on anything will evaporate in the future. Look at the person next to you and across the room, and if one of you hasn’t either suffered from mental illness or loved someone who has, you’re an anomaly. It’s everywhere, and it’s not confined to a class, race, gender, sexual orientation or any of the other qualifiers I forgot to mention.


So step up, Clive, and do the right thing. Mothers, fathers, children and siblings from Shenandoah to Sioux Center to Grundy Center to Fort Madison will thank you. And most importantly, people who are suffering desperately without much hope for improvement will have a place to go.


“To the person in the Bell Jar… the world itself is the bad dream.”- Sylvia Plath