There is a pastor here in my hometown of Indianapolis, Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith Lund, whose work I've come to greatly admire. Currently serving as pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ here in Indy, Rev. Dr. Lund also serves as the denomination's Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice.
Can I just acknowledge how much I love that UCC, United Church of Christ, even has a Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice?
But, back to my story.
Rev. Dr. Lund is refreshingly authentic in her presence, both a strong spiritual leader and the kind of voice for humanity whom you can't help but feel comfortable around. Trust me, I don't feel comfortable around very many people.
Rev. Dr. Lund shares her story in her book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church. I thought of Rev. Dr. Lund, and indeed my own life, an awful lot while watching Kenneth Paul Rosenberg's compassionate and confrontational feature documentary Bedlam, a personal and intense journey into the cyclical worlds of the nation's people with serious mental illnesses.
Nominated for the Doc Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Bedlam is a difficult film to watch. It's an enraging film to watch, an unfathomable tragedy in a country with one of the worst mental health systems in developed countries where thousands of people with mental illnesses live on the streets daily lacking even the basics of mental health care.
It's a problem that's getting worse.
You can feel the sense of urgency in Rosenberg's film, a film that has at its foundation the filmmaker's own familial experiences with his sister, Merle, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age 14 and subsequently institutionalized. Bedlam is a horrifying film, uncomfortable even for this writer who worked 10 years on an inpatient psychiatric unit and in emergency room crisis intervention. As someone who has been on both sides, Bedlam was a difficult, full-on triggering viewing experience yet it exists as an absolutely vital depiction of the gross inadequacies of the American mental health system that largely began de-evolving under JFK's poorly implemented policies emphasizing deinstitutionalization at any cost.
In 1950, there were approximately 550,000 people in America's mental health institutions. There's simply no denying the system was over-utilized, poorly run, and often downright abusive. There were people in institutions who shouldn't have been in institutions, but 40 years later 90% of those beds were gone and the system has never been equipped to address the mental health needs that never went away. Instead, many of these people are now inappropriately incarcerated.
Bedlam tracks several specific individuals over the course of several years to track their progress. They include Monte, brother of Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors, whose experiences largely served as an inspiration for #BlackLivesMatter. It makes sense, really, given how frequently those with mental illnesses are treated as the enemy rather than those in our nation who are among the most vulnerable and needing of help. Cullors recounts an experience with her brother being tear gassed, yes tear gassed, when being moved from one cell to another.
Bedlam vividly addresses the issue of shame and stigma around mental health concerns, Cullors again being a vivid voice as the film points out that even in a city the size of Los Angeles the leading mental health facility in Los Angeles County Psych ER only has 10 beds for adolescent psychiatric treatment.
You don't even have to imagine what the situation is around the country and certainly in rural areas.
Bedlam is largely focused on a handful of folks who enter the Los Angeles Country USC psychiatric ER. It's an ER you could easily consider to be one of America's frontlines for mental health crises.
Johanna is bipolar and dropped out of college when her symptoms became more than she could manage.
The aforementioned Monte is schizophrenic and on parole for a crime he committed during an episode.
Todd is manic depressive and homeless.
Merle, the director’s sister, was diagnosed psychotic at age 20. Her parents would eventually remove her from the institution due to the stigma...a suicide attempt would follow...and she has since passed from the impact of her mental heatlh.
There are people trying to do something, including ER docs like Dr. McGhee, Dr. Lacsina and Dr. Dias, though they are restricted by a system that works against them. Rosenberg, a psychiatrist with Bedlam as his first feature film, creates a disturbing picture of what one of his experts calls a "150-year-old disaster," a decades long fairly to address mental health that seemed to be turning toward a more promising future in the 50's and forward as de-institutionalization became the law of the land. However, the romanticized nobility of community versus institution has been an often devastating failure as the transition was poorly implemented, only initially well funded, and has instead simply turned emergency rooms, prisons, and the streets into informal institutions.
Working alongside editor Jim Cricchi, Rosenberg has crafted a film that aches with urgency and that implants you so firmly within its world that at times it feels overwhelming.
It should be overwhelming.
D.P. Joan Churchill's lensing is often unsettling, working alongside the film's archival and historical footage to create a sense of the peril and crisis at hand. The emergency room scenes, in particular, are filled with uncomfortable tension as you have to remind yourself again and again and again that these people are not actors.
This is their daily life.
There is so much more I could say. There's so much more I want to say and probably need to say. Bedlam is a film I'm still processing and a film that is still lingering in my heart and in my mind. Bedlam primarily focuses itself on the problems at hand and telling the stories that need to be told. While it could be considered a minor deficit that it's not particularly solution-oriented, the truth is that may very well need to be an entirely different documentary.
For now? These stories. It's these stories you need to see and it's these stories you should never forget because these same types of stories are played out day after day in cities and towns across America.
What are we going to do about it?
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic