Protecting the ‘least among us’

By Brian Lindstrom and published in The Oregonian, 11/9/2010

I was recently in Germany and Denmark documenting innovative uses of acupuncture in the treatment of mental illness and drug addiction. What I encountered brought into sharp focus what would be available to us if we as a society prioritized the well-being of children and people suffering from mental illness and addiction.

Brian Lindstrom

Brian Lindstrom

About an hour outside of Hamburg, a man by the name of Wolfgang gave me a tour of the residential drug treatment center he runs. It resembles a quaint boarding school, possessing none of the institutional drabness I’ve come to expect after filming clinics in Oregon, Washington, Kentucky, Texas, Florida and Ohio. Wolfgang’s clinic uses only acupuncture – no medications – in treating drug withdrawal. Through an interpreter, a 35-year-old female crack addict told me this approach “calms and focuses me, greatly reduces my symptoms and cravings, and makes me think that the answer to healing my addiction is within me, and is accessed through acupuncture.”

I asked Wolfgang how long addicts typically had to wait for admission to his clinic. He didn’t understand my question, so I asked again. As I was about to ask a third time, it dawned on me the confusion wasn’t due to language, but to Wolfgang’s inability as a physician to comprehend why any patient should have to wait for treatment.

I explained to him that in Portland people sleep outside every night of the year in hopes of being admitted to Hooper Detox the following morning. Because of space limitations, many are turned away. It’s common for an addict to try five or six times before getting admitted. Wolfgang looked at me in stunned silence, then sadly shook his head.

In Copenhagen, I filmed Mette, a psychiatric nurse and acupuncturist, as she visited “social psychiatric” organizations — neighborhood homes turned into drop-in centers — using acupuncture to treat mental illness. The acupuncture, often done in small groups, and the homey atmosphere help create a sense of warmth and community. At one of the homes, a woman was in the kitchen making a cake to celebrate her first bridge crossing in four years — an important victory over one of her phobias. Later, she shared the cake with another woman who, after giving birth to her third child, suffered such severe post-partem depression that she couldn’t adequately care for her newborn. Now, after the benefits of social psychiatry, she is able to mother her baby.

The next morning, Mette and I drove her 13-year-old son, Jakob, to school. The school day started like any other, with all the students (ranging in age from 5 to 15) and the teachers in the gym for morning assembly. “Smoking is Crap,” a song written by one of the classes, was sung by the entire assembly. Next the principal, a vibrant woman in her 60s, called a 13-year-old boy to the front of the gym. She warmly put her arm around him and extolled a detailed list of his virtues and accomplishments. Then everyone sang him “Happy Birthday” He smiled deeply, hugged the principal and sat down. Next, a 5-year-old girl stood up and explained that she had lost a ninja turtle toy and would like it returned in case anyone found it. You could tell it was hers, she explained, because she wrote her name on the toy turtle’s foot.

I was struck by the focus and calm of the assembled students, who numbered about 75. There was no name-calling, no texting or disciplinary problems, and the maturity of the older students was demonstrated by the 5-year-old girl’s complete confidence that her missing toy alert would be taken seriously. And it was.

The classes at this school have no more than 20 students, and music, art and P.E. are required daily. In the summer, there is a six-week vacation. I asked Mette what it costs to send Jakob to the school, bracing myself for Catlin Gabel-like numbers. “Two hundred dollars per month,” she answered. I resisted the urge to inquire about Denmark’s immigration policy.

My wife and I are self-employed. We paid more than $14,000 last year in health insurance and medical bills. One of our two children sees an occupational therapist for one hour a week. Our insurance company just informed us that it will no longer cover any such visits for the rest of this year. Paying out of pocket, our bill will be $425 a week, but the visits have helped our child make great strides in both fine and gross motor skills.

The relevant question here isn’t: “What should my wife and I do?” or “What would you do?” The question that must be asked is why are any of us content with health care and educational systems that make a mockery of what seems to me to be the purpose of any worthwhile government or society: to protect the “least among us,” in this case our children and people suffering from mental illness and addiction.

I’m reminded of the old Talmudic saying: “If I am not for me, who will be for myself? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now, when?”

Brian Lindstrom is a Portland filmmaker, and director of the upcoming documentary: Alien Boy: the death and life of James Chasse.

READ – Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom: Giving voice to the voiceless, Oregonian 6/3/2010