Not sure how this is going to go over — ed.
Let’s say you have a dog. It’s a rescue dog.
This pooch had been abused as a puppy by its previous owner and then grew up to be passed from one owner to another who gave up the dog because, well, let’s just say the dog was difficult. The dog would occasionally pee on the carpet, chew the drapes, or sometimes break out of its enclosure and run the neighborhood at four in the morning until someone called the dog warden or the cops.
But you’ve been a dog rescuer your entire life. You’re a good person. The dog is now on in years and though he’ still skittish and afraid of most people, he comes readily to you. There’s something special between you and this dog and you feel it too.
The dog thrives under your care. Ol’ Fido becomes friendlier to others, eats well and behaves inside and outside of the house. Things couldn’t be better.
But then you get a job that requires overnight travel. It pays much better than the last job but some weekends you may be gone from Friday until Sunday evening. But the dog is doing so well now so you think, ‘I’ll just find a good kennel for him while I’m away those weekends.’
So you find a reputable kennel. We’ll everyone says it is.
And on the first Friday, you take Fido to the kennel. The old pooch is a little intimidated and whiny but he goes in fairly willingly and starts to meet the other dogs.
At first, everything seems OK. On Sunday, Fido is happy to see you and the rest of days until the next trip seem fine.
But then something starts happening: Fido becomes a problem at the kennel. It seems some of his old habits have returned. One Sunday you pick up Fido and the kennel keeper wants to have a word with you. It seems Fido has been hard to control. He gets out of his kennel and has to be tracked down. He refuses to eat and has started baring his teeth to the other dogs to leave him alone.
Now, you’ve explained to the kennel people that this dog was a rescue and even told them about the dog’s history. Seemingly sympathetic to your plight, the kennel owner offers you a deal: she knows a good dog trainer, who, for a little extra money, will come on the weekends that Fido stays and work with him. If you agree to that, Fido can stay.
This sounds good to you so you agree to pay a little extra for the trainer. Who knows – this might be the best thing that happens to your dog.
Except it isn’t.
Now on Sundays Fido comes out of the kennel literally shaking in fear. On Fridays, the poor dog literally needs to be dragged, yelping and whining into the kennel. You feel terrible but what can you do? The job demands that you travel for these weekends and the kennel has the best reputation in the city, or so they say.
Maybe you should speak to the trainer. So one Sunday when picking up Fido, the trainer comes over to talk to you. You notice Fido starts shaking as the trainer comes near.
‘Well ma’am your dog is a bit on the antisocial side,’ the trainer says. ‘But we’re working with him. Give us a little more time and I’m sure he’ll come around.’
But you’re not so sure because you can see the fear in your dog’s eyes.
At home Fido is back to his old ways, peeing on the carpet, chewing the drapes – but now Fido is also chewing at his own fur, leaving tufts and bald spots.
So you check the other kennels in the area but no one has availability for your dog right away. You ask a few friends but they either have other animals or ‘plans.’ So, reluctantly, you get on the other kennels’ waiting lists and drag Fido back to the same kennel.
But this trip is cut short due a cancelled appointment. Instead of getting home Sunday evening, you’re home Sunday morning. You decided maybe you should go to the kennel and see for yourself what the staff is doing for your dog and why Fido has gradually turned into such a problem. You don’t want your dog to know you’re there so you can observe.
So you park on the other side of the kennel and watch what’s going on from your car.
This is what you see:
The trainer has set up a behavior course for Fido. If Fido completes certain tasks, such as coming when called, heeling, fetching a stick, he gets the doggie treat that is at the end of each lane. OK, positive reinforcement, you think. But something is wrong. The trainer is yelling at your dog to do the task. Fido, scared, comes over for the first test, his head bowed, looking pathetic.
The trainer yells, ‘fetch the stick!’ But then the trainer throws the stick AND a ball. Fido trots over to the stick, looks back at the trainer who says, impatiently, ‘well?’ Your dog gingerly picks up the stick and starts bringing it back to the trainer. But the trainer grabs the stick from Fido and angrily says ‘no, I said get me the ball, not the stick you stupid mutt!’
Fido cowers into a ball and starts to shake.
‘Get the damn ball,’ yells the trainer, sneering like a sadist, which the trainer is.
Fido trots nervously back toward the ball but then the trainer throws the stick. ‘Stick!’ he shouts. ‘Get the stick you miserable mutt!’
You’re horrified. You’ve seen enough and you’ve been taking video with your phone the whole time. You get out of the car about to bring hellfire down on the trainer and the kennel, from lawsuits to the ASPCA.
But you freeze. You have nowhere else for the dog. If you take Fido back on weekends, you’ll have to quit your well-paying job. The other option is to take Fido back to the pound and give him back. But he’s been given back so many times before – it may kill him. But this is killing him.
No dog should have to live like this.
But every day in countless schools and workplaces around the country, this is how people with mental illnesses are treated. Yes, it’s an allegory, maybe a bad one, but fairly accurate. Wounded people in need of the right kind of mental health treatment are forced to deal with situations they do not understand or cannot cope with. In our society, they are expected to fit in and they try. But they can’t mold themselves to society’s expected behaviors.
From home to home, school to school, job to job they are bounced. Sometimes, when they act out in public they are arrested and put in jail. Even when they get ‘lucky’ enough to get into a mental treatment facility, often the facility is underfunded and understaffed by people who don’t get paid enough to care. Abuse happens everywhere but is more likely to happen to those with mental illness because of stigma and fear.
We have choices as a society on what kind of human services we will fund. No one objects to funding programs for children with birth defects, so they can someday lead a productive life. But for mentally ill people who could be productive citizens, we pause and wonder if we’re just throwing good money on bad dogs who will always be a little ‘off,’ a little ‘scary’ and a little ‘difficult.’
So, if you could see how hard people with mental illness, who never asked for their condition – a condition that unlike a broken arm or birth defect, cannot be seen; if we could see how hard they try to fit in with the ‘normals;’ if we could see and maybe even feel the pain of fighting your brain constantly; if we could see the fear they feel from social anxiety, the anger they experience from personality disorders or the deep, searing pain from depression, perhaps we could say that these people deserve relief and help.
Because so many do not – because of insurance, minimum wage jobs and a lack of affordable and decent options, especially in rural areas.
But in closing, if you could imagine having to bear the burden of a mental condition, just think of this:
Would you let your dog, in that kennel, suffer like that if it could be avoided?