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Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
Most of us, however, will have to find our opportunities to serve the mentally ill in a voluntary capacity, not as regular employees. Possibilities for such volunteer services are unlimited, but they are undeveloped. In spite of the fact that mental patients need diversion much more than other hospital patients, and in spite of the fact that nearly half of the occupied hospital beds in the country are filled by mental patients, we provide many more voluntary services to general hospitals than to mental hospitals. The Red Cross Gray Ladies group which serves a mental hospital is still a rarity -- but such groups can be of great benefit to mental patients.
There are patients in mental hospitals who have never owned a magazine, never had a game to play, never had a visitor, never seen a person from "the outside" in several months or even several years. A filling station employee used an afternoon off to go through the wards of one hospital playing requests on his accordion -- it was the major topic of conversation among the patients for months afterwards. Literally thousands of mental patients are starving for little diversions which we could give them as easily as not. The rewards which would come to us in terms of smiling faces and heart-felt thanks would more than repay us for our efforts.
Some veterans' organizations, an occasional Sunday School class, a few Red Cross chapters and several specially organized citizens' groups have sponsored volunteer service programs among the mentally ill. These efforts have met with enthusiasm and success in almost every case. But they have not spread widely; they meet but a tiny fraction of the need.
Here are some things all of us can do: We can take our used magazines and books to the hospital; we can provide the patients with games and other recreational equipment; we can visit a lonely patient; we can offer to do whatever is recommended by the recreational or social service department of the nearest mental hospital. We can do this sort of thing alone if necessary. But we can do it best in a group. In a group we can give parties, show movies, stage musical or dramatic events, provide worship services and do all manner of helpful things, again on recommendation of the hospital authorities. The possibilities are so endless, the need is so great, that there is room. for everyone in this area of service. The ability to sit quietly and knit may be just as useful in entertaining a mental patient as the ability to dance a Highland Fling.
Not all opportunities for serving are inside hospitals, however. Patients who are discharged as recovered or greatly improved find that getting a job is a major hurdle, and that reassuming all the duties of normal life is a terrific obstacle. To face these problems without the support of sympathetic and understanding friends is often too much to stand -- it is literally enough to "drive a man crazy." And that's just what it does to far too many. Because family and friends often refuse to accept a former patient back into normal activities, many recovered patients remain in hospitals longer than necessary, or are needlessly returned for further treatment.
Assisting in rehabilitating former patients is, therefore, another area of service in which many of us can be active. Twelve states have a system of foster home care which serves as an intermediate step between institutional life and complete independence. A group of citizens in Northampton, Massachusetts, secures jobs and sponsors the release of deserving patients whose families have forsaken them. Here and there, farmers have found valuable farm hands among discharged patients. A few shops near hospitals make a policy of giving former patients a chance.
But these are exceptional cases. For the most part, mental patients meet a suspicious, antagonistic environment when they leave the hospital. As individuals and groups, we can help meet the need for foster homes, we can provide intermediate steps in the transition from hospital to home, we can act as sponsors or overseers for forsaken patients, we can help them find jobs and places to live.
At least, we can all change our own attitudes to make it easier for mental patients to go to the hospital, receive treatment and return home again. We accept without question medical decisions as to whether a former patient has recovered from a simple malady like measles. Why do we insist on judging complicated mental illnesses according to our prejudices and false notions? It is time to take a sensible, realistic attitude toward mental patients. Adopting such an attitude and spreading it among others is one of the most effective ways of serving the mentally ill.
These brief paragraphs do not begin to exhaust the possibilities for service to the mentally ill. They only suggest a few areas in which opportunities for service are immediately open to all of us. Regardless of how hard we try to "brighten the corner" where we are, however, we cannot possibly provide all the services that are needed. Dark corners will still exists -sic-.