American liberty has always come with exceptions. An estimated one-fifth of the colonial population was enslaved at the time of independence. The raw number of men and women in bondage would grow to four million by the time a bloody war finally brought about, after twelve generations, emancipation for Americans brought forcibly from Africa. Likewise sexual liberty: anti-sodomy laws were enforced in the state of Texas as late as 1998. Although it is fair to say that, in the words of the eminent historian Bernard Baylin, the Founding set off a “contagion of liberty” that expanded through centuries into the freer society we know today, it is equally clear that that the promise of America has not extended to everyone.
One group whose confinement is often overlooked is mentally ill people. Throughout the history of our country, the mentally ill have lived under social and often physical constraints on the freedom that was promised to all Americans. For the first seventy to eighty years of American history, this confinement was literal. Mentally ill people were kept chained up in basements, a horror that motivated Dorothea Dix to crusade for better treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities. (In an illustration of the stubborn complication of freedom in this country, Dix turned a blind eye to slavery.) She succeeded in liberating the people she championed from what were effectively dungeons, but their replacements, state asylums, were nearly as inhumane.
Motivated by his sister Rosemary, who was lobotomized and sent to an institution by their ruthless father, President Kennedy sought another step in the progress of disabled Americans. His Community Mental Health Act set off a wave of liberation that proceeded in tandem with the other civil rights revolutions of the 1960’s. This was promising. But just as mentally ill people were beginning to get a fairer shake, Ronald Reagan eviscerated community treatment with block grants, and in the ensuing four decades of right-wing hegemony, it never recovered.
North Carolina has seen the worst of anti-mentally ill ableism. Recently, a patient in Butner hanged himself with a belt. His body tumbled to the floor when the nurses came in to check on him. From a systemic perspective, the mistreatment has been just as egregious. Democratic attempts to privatize treatment played out as a rather predictable fiasco, and then the Class of 2010 Republicans took it to another level. They rejected Medicaid expansion and cut the state Division of Mental Health by 17%. Consequently, suicide is rising in the state.
Surveying this landscape of mistreatment and betrayal, Dan Forest seems to have concluded that North Carolina has been too indulgent toward mentally ill people. In an interview in which he rejected Red Flag laws for gun safety, he called for more institutionalization. Deinstitutionalization, in his telling, has failed, serving as the culprit for the scandalous number of mentally ill people languishing in NC jails. As we have seen, community treatment did not fail; it was never tried. The president whose esteem among Republicans is second only to Donald J. Trump ensured that we would never have a true experiment in serving the mentally ill in a free and socially integrated setting. But Forest wants to consign thousands of North Carolinians to a grim life under lock and key.
This isn’t terribly surprising coming from a man who is arguably more conservative than Jesse Helms, but it conflicts glaringly with the bear-hugging image he is attempting to project as he completes his eight-year campaign for governor. A recent tweet sent from his account asserted that we, and by extension he himself, must show tender love toward the disabled. Which is it, Mr. Forest? Do the mentally ill deserve dignity and love, or should they be sent back to asylums in yet another demonstration of the fallibility of America’s promises?
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.