Last month, Dale K. Klatzker, PhD, was named one of Behavioral Healthcare's 2007 Behavioral Health Champions, and he cited this quote from Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey as one of his favorites: “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” The government of Serbia, part of the former Yugoslavia, clearly is failing this test.
In a report on NBC's Today program, reporter Ann Curry exposed the inhumane conditions some people with mental and physical disabilities in Serbia are enduring—conditions that Laurie Ahern of Mental Disability Rights International labeled torture.1 Filthy rooms, stick-thin children with contorted bodies, adults languishing in cribs—the images were just as bad—or worse—as what we saw at Abu Ghraib. I'm haunted particularly by the image of a 21-year-old man whose growth has been so stunted by his environment that he looked no larger than a 5-year-old boy. As unbelievable as it seems, “concentration camps” still exist in modern Europe.
Although the days of lifelong institutionalization largely have passed in our country, it was not that long ago that patients in America's mental health system faced similar conditions (and, as I described in last December's editorial, people with mental illness in some of our prisons still live in inhumane conditions). After Curry showed Serbia's social policy minister her footage, he announced the formation of a commission to look into the problem. This response seems woefully inadequate, but how many commissions, task forces, and committees have examined our mental health system, with meaningful change often frustratingly slow or elusive? And although the West tends to pride itself on moral superiority, the state of Tennessee is medicating a man with schizophrenia so he will be “sane enough” to receive the death penalty, as recently reported by Lara Logan on 60 Minutes.2
Without a shred of doubt, I know you and your staff are doing tremendous work in the face of so many obstacles, making a real difference in the lives of people with behavioral health disorders. Yet we all know that so much more could be done if our government, and others around the world, would make care of those in the dawn, twilight, and shadows of life the top priority. After all, as Sen. Humphrey suggested, isn't this the reason we have governments in the first place?
Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief
- Curry A. Exposing Serbia's dark secrets. Today. NBC. November 16, 2007. To view this video, go to http://www.video.msn.com and search for “Serbia.”
- Logan L. Insanity on death row. 60 Minutes. CBS. November 11, 2007. To view this video, go to http://www.cbsnews.com and search for “insanity on death row.”