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We can do better than jailing mentally ill Alaskans

  • Author: Elise Patkotak
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 7
  • Published August 7

Alaska Psychiatric Institute is located on Piper Street in Anchorage. Photographed December 12, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Bedlam was a real place. There was a time in British history when it was second only to St. Paul’s Cathedral as a place to visit in London. For a nominal fee, the general public was allowed to enter Bedlam and view its patients. It was considered one of the best shows in town, and was so cheap that even Londoners put out the money for multiple visits, because you never knew what the show would be that day.

Patients were often naked and chained to beds and walls and each other. The treatments prescribed were in some ways barbaric and involved, at various times, starving them, bleeding them and keeping them very, very cold. While none of these methods worked, that was not really the point. Because for hundreds of years, Bedlam was exempted from oversight by Parliament. Its board of directors had free rein. And it was very clear that for most of them, actually helping the mentally ill was not something they cared about. For many of the doctors and others who ran the hospital over those centuries, getting rich off the admission fee was their main objective. The patients were fed the cheapest of foods, minimally (if at all) clothed, afforded as little heat as would keep them alive, and the rest of the money went to keep the head of the hospital in very comfortable circumstances. There was little fear of being found out, because the position as head of the hospital was often passed down from father to son.

So, what does all this have to do with us here in Alaska in 2020? Well, quite frankly, if you look at the care we are providing to the mentally ill in this state, it becomes quickly apparent that we have barely risen above the standard of Bedlam in the 1600s. Our facility is too small. Mentally ill people end up in jail. Treatment is limited to nonexistent. Families seem to have no more access to good care for their ill relatives than they did 400 years ago. And clearly, money doesn’t always matter, or Kanye West’s wife would not have to put out the statement she did recently. Quite frankly, I never thought I’d feel any level of sympathy with anyone named Kardashian. But the message she put out was about dealing with a family member, a loved one, with a mental illness. Even for the obscenely rich and famous, it is both exhausting and often futile. It was the most human thing she’s ever written.

Mentally ill people do not belong in jail any more than they should be on the presidential campaign trail. In jails, they are just victims waiting to happen. They have committed no crime. They didn’t ask to be born with mental illness any more than a Type 1 diabetic asks to be born with it. But it happens. If you win the lottery and are a diabetic, you get to go to a hospital for your illness. If you lose the lottery and end up with mental illness, you get to go to jail.

What is wrong with us as Alaskans that we find it so hard to feel compassion for people whose brains function differently than the majority? Life can’t be easy for them. The world that we find so easy to decipher is oftentimes a mystery that they find difficult to navigate. The few medications we have frequently leaves them feeling tired and dopey and wiped out. None of us wants to feel that way all the time, especially when it only slows us down while doing little to nothing to actually control the illness. And even if we have medications that are proven effective in helping people like Kanye West with bipolar disorder, if they will not take them then they are no more effective than sugar pills. Families with far less resources than the Kardashians face a daily struggle, often feeling as though there is nowhere to turn. Organizations like NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) provide some support where possible, but families often need so much more in the way of services that are simply not there.

I don’t know how we help our mentally ill population best. I just know that what we are doing now seems like barely above the worst. At a minimum, we should provide them with a safe place to stay when in crisis — a place with mental health professionals available to help them, not jail guards.

As a society, we can and should do better.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska columnist and author. Her book “Coming Into the City” is available at and at local bookstores.

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