Dear Americans living in 2100,
I am writing you from the year 2015. Those of us living now, often look back upon the past and wonder, “How could people live like that?” or “How could people do that to one another?” or “How could people have believed that?”
Since you are reading this letter 85 years after it was written, I am sure you have some of the same questions for those of us living now.
First of all I want to tell you, we are not bad people. Most of us are not cruel, or hateful, or lacking in compassion. It is not that we are ignorant either, we have more literate people now than at any other time in history, and we have access to information from all over the world twenty-four hours a day.
I will try to explain to you how we came to treat our fellow human beings in such despicable ways. One thing that would shock you is to look up pictures from this period, and you will see that most dogs and cats are treated better than some of our citizens. In fact, if a dog or cat is abused, it is called animal cruelty and people go to jail for it. I can’t explain the passion people have for animals while at the same time refusing to acknowledge people they see who live on the street. Yes, we have people without homes living on the street. It is not just a few people either, the numbers are growing and most of them have a mental illness or an addiction to alcohol or some other substance.
It is the mentally ill that I want to talk to you about. Some things have changed over time, we no longer stick what looked like an ice pick in someone’s eye socket and severe part of their brain – a widely accepted practice in the 1940’s and 1950’s. We also have given up ice baths, insulin shock therapy, but occasionally we still practice electric shock therapy – some people swear by it. I’ve only known it to damage people’s memory, but I’m no expert.
We used to have asylums to house the mentally ill. Asylums were like hospitals but it was discovered that people were being mistreated in these large institutions. Most of the asylums closed in the 1980’s and 90’s. The problem is we didn’t find an alternative to help the people in need. Because we didn’t come up with a plan, most of those people are now living in the streets or are in prison. Prison and the streets are our two major options for the treatment of the mentally ill.
What I want to tell you is the “why” it happened, and “why” it is still happening. People with mental illnesses have been systematically marginalized and dehumanized since before this country was founded, and the implications of that marginalization and dehumanization have not made their way out of our culture yet. For instance, people use language on a daily basis that is degrading to the mentally ill. The use of this language is so wide spread that it is even found in art, literature and in comments from politicians. Recently, a politician said that people who wanted God out of our country are schizophrenic. That isn’t an exact quote, but you can understand the confusing and inaccurate use of the word which leads to further misunderstandings of the actual illness. In 2015 no one would make a derogatory remark about cancer or diabetes, but some people dress up as a mental patient to celebrate Halloween.
Right now in America we have a crisis with guns. Basically the problem is they are being used every day to kill people. It is common to blame these shootings on the mentally ill, another tactic that not only dehumanizes the mentally ill, it demonizes them.
So, you can see that our negative treatment of the mentally ill is a long standing one. People can hardly be held accountable for carrying on the beliefs of those that came before them. That is why I am writing to you, in the hope that you don’t carry on our beliefs, our discrimination, our jokes, or our derogatory language.
You are the future. You are all about cures and hope. We have failed in so many ways, please don’t be like us, please rise above us and be better. We are counting on you.
Woman alone photo available from Shutterstock