WE'RE CANARIES IN THE COAL MINES by Dede Ranahan

When I worked as the MHSA (Mental Health Services Act or Prop 63) Policy Director in the NAMI state office in Sacramento, I interfaced with other mental health actors — consumers, peer counselors, legislators, policy professionals, county and state bureaucrats, family members, health providers, and an array of non-profits and governing boards. 

While others were citing glowing statistics about MHSA implementation, I was collecting on-the-ground stories from NAMI members in California. I'd catalogue their statements, print them up, and pass them out at MHSA meetings. These stories contradicted the other reports. Some of my colleagues began to call me "The Canary in the Coal Mine."

Photo Credit: Chris White Flickr.com

Photo Credit: Chris White
Flickr.com

Now, with my blog, I'm experiencing déjà vu. Most of your stories here speak of failures, not successes, in our mental health system. Together, we're "canaries in many coal mines." What does this mean? The "canary" is someone who acts as an early reporter of disturbing conditions.  The idiom comes from the former practice of taking caged canaries into coal mines. If methane gas were present, the birds would die alerting miners to danger.

It's distressing. As "canaries," our early admonitions are not early at all. Way back in the 1830s, Dorothea Dix was campaigning to remove people with mental illnesses from jails and prisons. She said, "I come to place before the Legislature of Massachusetts the condition of the miserable, the desolate, the outcast. I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane men and women; of beings sunk to a condition from which the unconcerned world would start with real horror."

I won't reflect at length on the lack of progress in mental health care 187 years after Dorothea's efforts.  If I do, I'll become discouraged. I'll be tempted to believe the Office of Human Priorities will never include a Department of Mental Illness or a Secretary of Treatment and Care.

Meanwhile, please keep sending me your stories. They can be a single scene, an episode or longer. I can help you with editing. We have to repeat our stories over and over until society (including government) listens and takes action. If you're reading our stories, please forward them to people (including your legislators) who have no experience or knowledge of serious mental illness and the compromised state of our mental health system. We need everyone's understanding and support.

My son died in 2014 on a hospital psych ward where I thought he'd be safe. I'm retired and no longer a paid advocate but, to honor my son, I'll continue to be a "canary in the coal mine." I'll clamor for comprehensive, humane mental health care. We mustn't wait another 187 years to end the suffering individuals and families still endure.

We need change now. Sooner than tomorrow...