'No One Cares About Crazy People' cries for more attention for the mentally ill

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ron Powers draws on heart-wrenching personal experience in writing about the way society treats the mentally ill.

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America By Ron Powers Hachette Books 384 pp.

The title of the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and biographer Ron Powers, No One Cares About Crazy People, is a quote from a disclosed email sent by an aide working in the Milwaukee County Hospital, a line the aide never intended to be made public but that summarizes all too accurately the attitudes – on a personal and institutional level – that Powers encountered in the course of dealing with the schizophrenia that afflicted both his sons while they were still barely into their teens.

His older son Dean and his younger son Kevin are portrayed in these pages with achingly tender precision as they experience normal rambunctious boyhoods and the beginning of seemingly ordinary teenage years – the school experiences, the girlfriends, a shared love of guitar-playing that Powers clearly loves to remember: “From [Kevin's] solemn expression as the notes leaped and danced, you might have thought he was playing chess,” Powers writes. “And perhaps he was.”

But lurking under the surface of all this smiling family happiness was what Powers calls the “scourge” of schizophrenia. It developed early in both boys, and throughout the book, Powers interweaves his account of one family's steadily-worsening crisis with a broader historical inquiry into how societies have dealt with the mentally ill, and specifically how American society deals with the epidemic today. According to the World Health Organization, fully a quarter of the world's population will experience some kind of mental illness; “two thirds of these,” Powers writes, “either do not recognize that they are ill or simply refuse treatment.” In America, the National Institute of Mental Health studies indicate that more than 62 million adults require some combination of counseling or medical treatment for mental illness, and in his book Powers tells some of those countless stories as counterweights to his tales of Dean and Kevin enduring “the mercies of an unmerciful world.”

The worst of that unmerciful world, unsurprisingly, is the world of US prisons – a world that comes into the ambit of the book because of the legal problems his son Dean encounters. “The American prison system is an archipelago of barbarity,” he writes with damning directness. “In many important ways its assumptions and practices bespeak the Middle Ages.” According to a Department of Justice study, more than half of the country's roughly 2 million prisoners suffer from some kind of mental health problem, and the ruthless squalor of their lives, the criminalization of mental illness reflected in their plight, fuels some of the book's most scathing prose – as does the anti-psychiatry movement of the late 1960s and 1970s spearheaded by Thomas Szasz, author of "The Myth of Mental Illness," and by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who created Scientology.

Powers unflinchingly counts up the vast and varied costs of such movements, costs in human suffering on every level, from comfortably “normal” suburban kids like his own to the many hundreds of wretched victims whose untreated conditions propel them into deadly confrontations with the police. “What of the lengthening list of sufferers who have been shot dead by officers who saw their movements as threatening and had no training in the restraint of people in psychosis,” Powers asks, “in part because such training has been deemed unnecessary, given that 'psychosis' is a 'myth'?”

Ron Powers has earned his right to publish a book as angry and revelatory as "No One Cares About Crazy People" – he's paid the highest price a father can pay: his son Kevin hanged himself, and it was Powers who found the body (“A dusty little window just under the ceiling,” he writes in the nearly unbearable moment, “on his far side, allowed some weak morning light to play on his hair, not enough to fire up the gold”). He has shaped his pain into a sustained howl of incandescent outrage, a book too heartbreaking to be comforting (despite its glimmers of die-hard optimism) and too uncompromising to be ignored. It's a book to stand comparison with Sylvia Nasar's "A Beautiful Mind" but that is in many ways even more powerful, since Kevin and Dean are not math prodigies like that book's main character but rather are the very picture of normal American boyhood until mental illness darkens that picture completely.

“I hope that you do not 'enjoy' this book,” Powers writes. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” Readers of "No One Cares About Crazy People" will certainly feel that wound, and they will finish the book more convinced than ever of Powers's central anthem: “Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” If any book can begin to change those conditions, this is the one.

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