In no other part of this country is more done by the government--federal as well as state--to help the unfortunate than in this metropolitan area. This has been true under the present administration as well as under the previous ones. Generous grants for hospitals, day-care centers, schools for the handicapped and many other medical, educational and social supports are provided.
But is all the money allocated by the government really going to help us realize our high goals and expectations for striving to help the handicapped function in our society? Will dollars and facilities really do it? It is self-evident that those we want to help must be brought to the point where they can function in society, or our efforts are wasted. But is society ready for them? Will society accept them?
Take the case of a brilliant 18-year-old girl who is about to enter college: she looks forward to a successful career as an artist. She suddenly suffers a nervous breakdown and has to be hospitalized for five years. Finally, she leaves the hospital, but she is still convalescing, and her hopes and self-confidence are shattered. What she needs most urgently is acceptance by the community--understanding, concern and warmth. If instead she finds aloofness, indifference and even discrimination--if she is shunned socially, rejected in her efforts for employment, unable to find a room for herself--then all the good that may have been derived from years of hospitalization and treatment may turn out to have been wasted.
One former mental patient who later became a mental health professional has written about her own experience, in a paper published last year by the National Institute of Mental Health: "My life has been changed not only by the experience of mental illness but by the negative attitudes I have encountered since my illness. Part of the recovery process for mental illness involves overcoming a problem of even greater magnitude than the illness itself: the negative feelings and attitudes of others towards the mentally ill. . . . For me, the stigma of mental illness was as devastating as the experience of hospitalization itself."
While group homes are permitted in any neighborhood, group homes of former mental patients frequently confront difficulties because of the fears of otherwise well-meaning people. Prejudice against the former mental patient can be more severe than religious or racial prejudices.
But a proper public understanding or attitude cannot be legislated. It can only be brought about through constant, patient education. This should be a main topic on the agenda of spiritual leaders of every faith who believe in the biblical dictum that the dignity of every human being is guaranteed as an image of God, who has commanded, "love thy neighbor as thyself."