Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Honolulu Advertiser places "ward" where there is no hospital, possibly feeding NIMBY frenzy

by Larry Geller

Hawaii has a long history of discrimination against people with mental illness. Two lawsuits, one filed against the state Department of Education and the other by the feds against the State Hospital, lingered for a decade each. Many parents and advocates believe that the state should not have been let off the hook quite yet.

It's not just the state that discriminates. People with disabilities face employment and other discrimination constantly in everyday life. Two lawsuits don't change public attitudes overnight. It will take work on the part of advocates to reverse deeply entrenched ways of thinking.

A bias or stigma against those with mental illness derives from ignorance and is therefore curable. One must be vigilant.

Today's Advertiser included this unfortunate headline:


No "mental ward" has been proposed that needs to be opposed. What is proposed is a home for people who will be shortly returning to ordinary life in the community.

That bias is part of the equation can be seen in the use of somewhat shocking stereotypes reported in the article. One Kailua resident is quoted as using the phrase "this type of person." Another testifier was concerned whether ordinary walls would be sufficient to contain the violence.  Hint to the uninformed: there is no "type of person" who is mentally ill. People of all socio-economic classes may suffer equally. And statistically there is no increased violence--quite the opposite.

But the worst thing is that the headline got through the editors. The on-line edition has a better headline:


Kailua residents may have a point about the siting of this home near a sewage treatment plant etc. Maybe there is a better choice. The Advertiser headline will provide fuel for the next community NIMBY fight.

It's just going to make it tougher for these people to get community treatment.


The deeper meaning of "Not In My Back Yard"

NIMBY is a complex concept. If someone wanted to put a dump near where I live, in middle of Honolulu, I'd object also, saying that it's the wrong place (so far our city government hasn't been that stupid). On the other hand, sometimes a dump has to go someplace. Unfortunately it inevitably ends up in the backyards of those who have already been marginalized.

But let's dig deeper. Maybe the time for having dumps is over. As each community objects, one after another, the will of the people is ultimately made clear to its government. No more dumps. There needs to be another solution. We have had enough. It's time to stop adding garbage to landfills. Yes, NIMBY can become "enough already!".

When community after community objects to locating a private prison in their back yard, the message could be "no private prisons!". And so on.

It's sometimes described as a "micro-trend." The same thing happening over and over in different places. The "soccer mom" phenomenon is a positive example of this. It's a simple thing that just happened here and there until it was everywhere. 

But civic issues are often complex, unlike kids' soccer. There is usually little in the way of public dialogue on civic issues. If there are to be no more prisons then there have to be community resources instead, or sentences have to be reduced (or we could legalize and regulate drugs!). Something has to change.

To tell the truth, this seems not to be going well elsewhere, either. Community resources are not coming on-line at the rate they are needed. In some states the only way to get mental health or substance abuse treatment is to get arrested and thrown in jail.

We in Hawaii have a lot of work to do. Kailua already has homes that provide treatment for those with mental illness and substance abuse issues. There's no violence, children are not abducted, and probably no one would recognize that "type of person" who is living nearby. Moreover, for sure, some Kailua families will have a family member in need of treatment now or one day. It's not like the state is asking to locate a bunch of space aliens in their community. These are their own people whom they don't want.

Newspapers can play a role in creating dialogue. I hope the Advertiser gets on board. As penance for today's headline, they could run a story about community treatment facilities as they really are.

At any rate, no more inflammatory headlines, please.


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