Bob and Becky Barnes are two of the most beloved members at Hennepin County National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. They always have a kind work or remarkable insight to add to anything that happens there, and their presence always adds immeasurably to any event. Their insights have come at a hard price, though, as they’ve watched and experienced the suffering of their young son, Jon, with mental illness. But they’ve not let their hearts be hardened by their pain, on the contrary, they’ve become active professional and personally in helping and teaching others struggling with this most terrible of illnesses and their families. But this Fall, they’ve experienced the most devastating loss a mother and father can face, when Jon lost his life to his illness. I asked Becky, herself a senior social worker with Hennepin County Mental Health, if she would allow me to publish part of her insights to perhaps awaken or reawaken a sense of action within us.
“Our community is grieving the loss of one of its children and in their shock many people have asked “How could this have happened?” The paradox is that none of us are to blame and yet all of us are to blame. I wonder if America’s educational system is truly open to all of our children: when it is easier to practice “no tolerance” for mistakes, instead of practicing the mercy and compassion kids need from adult role models. When problems at school are blamed on “uninvolved” and “uncaring” parents but parents who come to school to discuss issues that arise are defined as “harassing” the teacher and escorted to the principle’s office.
I wonder if the American dream is big enough for our kids: when we look down upon those who aren’t the right color, don’t have enough athletic ability, come from less than ‘whole’ families, aren’t in with the “in crowd,” don’t care about the things adults think they “should” to be responsible adults, or have unacknowledged disabilities.
I wonder if our faith communities love those with mental illness enough: when we’re more concerned with building programs and church brunches than we are about ministering to the hurting souls among us. When we get caught up in judgments of who and who will not inherit God’s kingdom instead of spreading the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for us all.
I wonder if our justice system is fair to those with mental illness: when our solution to reduction of the number of beds in our state hospitals is to spend the most money in our country’s history on jails to
punish those with mental illness or chemical dependency who may find themselves in contact with the law.
I wonder if the best economic times in years are shared with our troubled youth: when the cost of an apartment is more than the total of a person’s Social Security check. When we spend more on research for tooth decay than we do on brain diseases that affect at least 1 in 4 families among us. When the media eagerly publicizes events for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, but not mental illness, although more hospital beds are used for mental health than all the rest combined.
I wonder how much our health care system is responsible for premature deaths; when it takes nearly 3 months to get in to see a therapist for people newly released from treatment centers. When we practice “brief therapy” even in our state hospitals although we know clinically that the best deterrent to suicide is to be in a long term relationship with an empathic therapist, coupled with medication. When families have to get angry and exhausted in advocating for care for their loved one that should be freely given in a prosperous land such as ours. When community support programs are underfunded and staff is
underpaid, resulting in high turnover and undercutting long-term support efforts.
Jonathan Lee Barnes lost his life to mental illness at the age of 20 years and 4 months. Jon’s dad lost the bass in his quartet and soccer pal. Jon’s sister lost her confidant for what it is like to live in the world
with a mental illness and the baby brother who could always beat them at basketball, cribbage, and now carry a cross and Jon’s name tattooed on their right arm. Jon’s cocker spaniel lost her playmate and sits at the top of the stairs waiting for him to come home. I lost my son with sky blue eyes and dimpled grin who was always ready with a neck massage and a hug when I came home tired from work and for whom I loved to make wild rice soup and gingerbread cookies.
The time to prevent suicide is not when people appear in crisis in our emergency rooms. It’s in the day to day actions of the systems we’ve created. I feared Jon’s life might be ending and began telling him I loved him each and every time I left him. I have no doubt that Jon knew the depth of his family’s love for him. So most importantly, parents, hug your kids and never miss an opportunity to tell them how very precious they are to all of us.
Without some changes made in our society, it could be the last time that you can.
It takes a village to raise a child. God forgive us all.” Becky Larson Barnes, MSW, LICSW