It's the time of year when the Frank Capra classic "It's a Wonderful Life" is aired on cable channels at all hours. You know the story: How George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, arrives on a bridge in a fit of despair, ready to take his own life. How the angel Clarence steps in and gives him a glimpse of what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never existed. How in the end the town comes together to save George from financial ruin, and the angel Clarence gets his wings.
Well, after the death of Sonny Anthony Iovino, a 55-year-old, mentally ill Vietnam veteran who froze to death here last month under the Benton St. Bridge, I don't think I'll ever see "It's a Wonderful Life" in quite the same way. There was no kindly angel to rescue this man, who suffered from chronic schizophrenia. He wasn't standing on a bridge thinking of ending his life; he was huddled beneath one trying to stay alive.
His community, my community, didn't come together to save him from ruin. Instead it refused him shelter, refused him even the most basic of medical care when he needed it most.
On Nov. 7, at 3:57 p.m., police responded to a report of a body under the Benton St. Bridge. Upon arrival they found Iovino, nearly naked, dead. The Johnson County Medical Examiner determined the cause of death to be hypothermia. Local police officers had tried to get Iovino the care he needed just 48 hours before his death. But he was refused a bed at the local homeless shelter and then turned away from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center here because he was "uncooperative."
According to Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, author of "Surviving Schizophrenia" and president of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating barriers to the treatment of mental illnesses,
"As many states, Iowa included, shut down beds for mentally ill patients then there's two places they can go: the streets and jails. Our nation's jail keepers are tired of being their communities' primary mental-health facility."
But that's precisely what they are. According to a study by the Justice Department last year, 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates suffer from mental illnesses. There are now more mentally ill Americans behind bars than in hospitals.
Nevertheless, civil libertarians seem more concerned with a patient's civil rights than his very survival. For example, despite a study released in 2005 by the New York State Office of Mental Health showing a marked decline in arrests, hospitalizations, incarcerations, homelessness, and threats of violence and suicide for patients under that state's "Kendra's Law," the New York Civil Liberties Union lobbied against the law's renewal that same year.
In my view, the problem is that the modern world is so deeply committed to rationality and autonomy that we can not accept the reality of individuals who are not capable of rational thought or of using their autonomy. I wrote about it briefly on National Review in response to the Virginia Tech murders, and at some length in my essay, "Making Room in the Inn: Why the Modern World Needs the Needy," in Wealth, Poverty and Human Destiny