Commentary on Seeing Red: A Memoir by Jim Henson

Forward To Seeing Red: A Memoir by Jim Henson

In reading Jim Henson's Seeing Red: A Memoir, I can't help but view this upbeat book as a chronicle about the tremendous challenges the mental health profession, in general, has encountered over the past 50 years. Jim, to his credit, has not only survived the frustrations of his profession but has actually flourished thanks to his intelligence, skill and an unrelenting sense of mission and service to his clients. One can easily discern that his frustration with the state delivery system, which he describes with a steady grasp of detail and humor, is countered with the real joy and satisfaction that he felt by personally working in the practitioner-client arena. It is worth noting however, that as frustrated as Jim was in trying to move systems he actually was pretty good at it.

Jim chronicles what it was like to be "on point" between the state mental health authority (which by the way was also new and naive) and community opinions regarding the value and necessity of treatment of the mentally ill. Historically, the prevailing opinion of most communities towards these patients was not too stellar. Would the words "banish and forget" be a more apt description? These attitudes placed law enforcement and psychiatric inpatient facilities (previously known as insane asylums) at the forefront of care-taking this population while maintaining low visibility. However, as Jim details in his book when these inpatient facilities became too expensive (legislative value judgment reserved for unproductive persons) they shipped many of these same patients back because they were "easier to treat" in their home community (and cheaper for the state). Besides, Deschutes County now had Jim and the two Evelyns who were collectively eager and receptive souls who wanted to make a difference. So now you have not only an overload of acutely ill patients who need structure and intensive medical and psychological monitoring but as the Red Baron discovered some of them could be downright dangerous. To complicate matters, let us also mention that many of these patients, while manageable on medications, can become psychotic when they stop using them. Civil liberties prevent compulsory use so clinic staff have to be quite persuasive.

Of course, the state mental health agencies were very pleased, because all of the literature supported new concepts of community based treatment but forgot that small detail of funding for staff support. I was amused at Jim's messenger (sheriff) who brought good tidings which usually amounted to news of legislation that dropped more of these patients into Jim's lap. I could almost hear him chuckling when he delivered the news. Law enforcement received excellent funding to manage the mayhem caused by alcohol consumption and had the ear of decision makers. In my career, as an alcohol treatment program administrator, I drooled over the thousands and thousands of dollars law enforcement got for cars, radar equipment and the like that came from liquor revenues. You see, they had figured out that if you emphasized the first line of defense posture, communities and legislators would buy in. In fact, they were so successful that actual war was declared on drugs nationally, and we all have witnessed how successful that has been. Interdiction and punishment before treatment and prevention. Besides, law enforcement has always seemed manlier than social workers. I once had a group of officers tell me that they did not sign on to do social work, and it was taking away too much time from their real duties.

So in the end have Jim's efforts, and others like him, made a substantial change in moving community attitudes in the direction of better understanding of the need for better treatment facilities and a more comprehensive safety net for seriously disturbed citizens? I suspect that there has been some improvement. We all feel some relief when one of our social heroes enters a "28 day program." Attitude changes have come slowly with better formal community education in addition to less formal sources such as topical movies and soaps (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and further through press coverage involving afflicted, notable entertainment and political personalities. Of course, the most powerful source for changing attitudes in this arena comes from patients and their family's personal experiences with the pain and frustration of not being able to get help. But when you hear of tragedies on the scale of New Town, and you see the lack of concern by our leaders you have to wonder.

I wonder what the Red Baron would say if he were around today. I guess we will have to wait and see in Jim's next book.

Neil McNaughton, Executive Director of Serenity Lane, 1977 - 2006



Comments from readers

(Seeing Red: A Memoir is) Poignant, funny and authentically Jim. Seeing Red is a Doc Martin-esque return to an earlier Bend community with quirky and endearing characters, exceptional landscapes, a young family's settlement in a supportive community and an insider's look at community mental health and the tangles of state bureaucracy. This is Jim's best book and he's at his best sharing the compassion and innovative approaches he incorporated that enabled people to move through pain into hope. Well done my former boss, well done.  Jane Kirkpatrick, NY Times Bestselling author of One Glorious Ambition: the Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix (Random House, 2013)