On a visit to Boneshaker Books with my child, I waved my hand at the Kate Millet titles on the shelf in answer to the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” My 19-year-old studied the used books, and found a signed, hardback copy of “The Loony Bin Trip” for me.
Published in 1990, that book is about the perceptions and repercussions of mental illness, LGBTQ communities, sexuality, trying to run a farm, and practicing one’s art. Millet, who was from St. Paul, had worked at the asylum in St. Peter. She was eventually committed to two institutions by family and friends. “The Loony Bin Trip” is about the subsequent nightmare of being judged unfit by those closest to you. She writes about being in constant peril of commitment, about her loss of autonomy, about forced hospitalization.
Having one’s rights stripped away due to mental instability is a common theme in women’s lives and literature — consider “Jane Eyre” or “The Yellow Wallpaper.” What is less common now than it was in Millet’s time is the likelihood of actual commitment.
There are more people today impacted by the stress of poverty and inequality than ever — and mental illness is more likely to be discussed openly. Yet, there are not enough places to get care unless you have considerable financial resources. With the Affordable Care Act, more people have insurance, however they also have insurmountable deductibles and co-pays, and sometimes plans that do not cover mental health. Minnesota has highly publicized de-stigmatization efforts, such as the “Make It OK” campaign. We have great advocacy organizations such as NAMI. Despite this progress in recognition of the need for care, we nearly saw Minnesota’s Crisis Connection hotline close for lack of funds last year.
The state of Minnesota is still trying to deal with the fates of people incarcerated as sexual predators at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, where Millet once worked. Is it humane for them to be hospitalized for their lifetimes, and at what cost to the public?
Is Society Mentally Ill?
We recognize horrifyingly high rates of mental illness in the incarcerated and homeless populations. Law enforcement, first responders, and direct service providers are often unprepared to deal with people in mental health crisis and may see them as criminals. Prison and jails have become holding pens for people who commit crimes out of poverty and desperation.
The stress of modern life seems to increase exponentially every day. We are urged to be more open — about mental illness, histories of abuse, harassment, racism, trauma. It’s great to get it out, but it can be triggering and contribute to our anxieties.
The more open we are about the challenges we face, the more our struggles are validated, at least on the surface. Yet to me it still doesn’t feel safe to be honest about mental illness or being a survivor of violence. The personal has become ever more political, demonstrated with presidential tweets and increasingly public lives in social media.
Millet’s book was published around the time I moved to Minnesota, where I have been learning to live with my own mental illness and reckoning with life as a survivor. Though progress may have been made in equity for women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community since her book came out, shocking amounts of abuse, racial and gender discrimination, and sexism continues to build toxic stress in our lives. The field of mental health tries to adapt despite having fewer resources, fewer people entering the field, and fewer facilities for those in crisis.
It’s time to embrace the idea that we as individuals are not necessarily sick — it is adapting to what our society is that makes us ill. Let’s focus on helping each other heal. Weaving together our strengths, we can make a new and beautiful tapestry.
Crisis Connection, 612-379-6363 (Twin Cities)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
Wendy Darst has a master’s degree in English from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. She is grateful to dedicate her work in social justice through personal and professional writing and playing music. Courtesy Photo