Government Neglect of the Mentally Ill / Miguel Iturria Savón

Last Friday I ran into my friend Nora on a bus, she’s diabetic with a 9-year-old daughter and schizophrenic brother who is a patient in a Havana psychiatric hospital. They take good care of him, after he bounced back and forth between his father’s house and the Mazorra madhouse, during almost two decades of delusions, pills and ghosts that turned him into a human wreck.

On asking Nora about her obvious concern, she told me that the sanatorium summoned her and after several questions they warned her that since her brother had his own house and could count on her help, she should be thinking about moving him back into the paternal home or the house she shares with her husband and daughter, as per the guidelines of the Ministry of Health to reduce the permanent population of the hospitals for the insane and mentally retarded.

For her, the “return” will increase the problems because the death of their father worsened the brother’s insanity and only with the help of the neighbors where they able to get him in Mazorra, where they discharged him as soon as the hallucinations decreased. He was back after two or three months and she could barely go to work. If left in his apartment she had to visit him daily and bear the complaints of the neighbors. The whole thing was also a burden for her daughter and husband; when her brother went into a crisis they had to hide in the house of a neighbor while the husband managed the ambulance or tried to calm down his brother-in-law.

Nora and her brother own their own houses, but he can’t live alone, or with someone else, there is no one who can put up with the ever-increasing problems. For both of them the alternative lies in the health institution. There are, however, worse cases, sick people with no families or with relatives who are very poor, aging or don’t have adequate housing.

I remember, for example, the case of Peter, a 53-year-old schizophrenic without parents or siblings to put up with his rantings. He was homeless and was about to die on the streets of an eastern town until a relative got him into an asylum in Havana, where he improved a lot but then they moved him to a Transit Hospital located in Fontanar. There, among the crazies and the beggars, Peter looks like a zombie waiting for the decision of the Classification Commission, which decides who gets put in the street, who is returned to their province, and who goes into Mazorra.

The former painters Edel Torres and his uncle Manolo are another example of the critical importance of the health institutions for psychiatric patients. For 17 years Edel bounced back and forth between his father’s house and large mental hospital in the capital. When his father died, Manolo moved in with him, but in three years he couldn’t deal with the frequent crises, the cost of food and medicine and the deteriorating house. After a decade of living together, Manolo is a beggar and Edel fights the same voices and demons that haunt him.

Nora and her brother Ernesto, Peter, Edel and Manolo, Alain, and dozens of the insane and retarded who increase like the marabou weed, resulting in a heavy burden on institutions and families. It is not a question of forgetting them in the hospital, or returning them to their “place of origin,” which they would not have left if they were in their right minds. The solution is not to relocate them like obsolete factory workers, if we can’t provide them social protection.

November 11, 2010