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How This New Film Is Tackling Mental Health, Stigma and the US Prison System

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which aims to break the stigma surrounding mental health. “Bedlam,” a film that premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, breaks down this stigma while providing both important facts and relatable stories for all viewers.

Mental asylums once were created with some good intentions but ended up leading to neglect and human warehouses. When these were closed, it shifted the care of people who are mentally ill from state governments to the federal government before shifting back to the states, which did not want control due to the cost. The result? On any given night, 350,000 mentally ill people sleep on the streets of America — 20,000 in Los Angeles alone. It is estimated that 25-50% of adults experiencing homelessness are chronically mentally ill. Jails and prisons have become America’s largest mental institutions.

In “Bedlam,” psychiatrist and filmmaker Kenneth Rosenberg takes viewers behind the scenes at a Los Angeles County Psych ER during a five-year period, unveiling disturbing realities for hundreds of thousands of homeless people and the lack of care available for psychiatric patients. They often are warehoused in overcrowded jails where under-equipped first responders provide the front line of care.

BEDLAM trailer from Upper East Films on Vimeo.

Rosenberg gets personal, sharing stories about his own sister who lived with schizophrenia for decades. “To be willing to tell my story meant overcoming the shame and stigma that so many family members confront,” he said. But, he also said it was “extremely important to me that I treat this as a documentarian.”

He intersperses his story with others, showcasing real examples of individuals affected by the system and explaining terms like bipolar disorder and psychosis for the average viewer. He focuses on Los Angeles as this city has become the epicenter of the national crisis.

He shows people of different genders and races affected by mental illness, which is important since disability affects people of all races, genders and sexual orientations. Voices include those of parents, siblings and, most importantly, the individuals with mental illness themselves.

Mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 Americans lives with some form of mental illness.

The film explores varied topics from incarceration and police killings to the difficulty in finding affordable housing and the broken system for obtaining vouchers, leading to increased rates of homelessness.


There are as many people with mental illness incarcerated today as there were people in 1960 in institutions for the care for mental illness. The three biggest jails in America have become our three largest psychiatric treatment facilities. Across the nation, jails are being built specifically to house the mentally ill. Today, 1 in 4 inmates have a mental illness.

According to RespectAbility’s landmark report, Disability and Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success,” more than 750,000 people with disabilities are behind bars in America. This includes 140,000 who are blind or have vision loss, approximately the same number who are deaf or have significant hearing impairments and more than 200,000 who have mobility issues. The largest group, which includes more than half a million people, has cognitive impairments.

“We need to acknowledge and accommodate for the full range and large numbers of people with diverse disabilities who are incarcerated as well,” said Janie Jeffers of Jeffers and Associates, who is one of the report’s authors and an expert on crime and prisons. “Failure to adequately and appropriately deal with these disability issues expands the cycle of failure, crime and recidivism.”

For decades, stories about criminal justice have focused on race and poverty alone. But this story misses the lens of what happens to people with disabilities who do not receive correct disability diagnoses, IEPs and accommodations early on.

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and her brother Monte, a survivor of this very broken system, are featured in the film.

“Part of the genesis of Black Lives Matter comes out of my life story including the criminalization of my first best friend, my brother,” she said during an interview while attending Sundance. “It birthed out of the movement of young people challenging how black people are seen as criminals first.”

When talking about her brother, Cullors said, “if he had received early intervention, he wouldn’t have cycled in and out of the prison system.”

Tackling Stigma

“There is a lot of shame about mental illness in the African American communities,” Cullors said in the film. “Shame is dangerous because shame makes you hide things. When we hide things, we do not get the support we need. When we hide things, we are not as transparent. And I think that shame literally kills people. Shame kills our possibilities of having something different.”

The solution? “The more we have a conversation about the complexity of human life, the better we are equipped to deal with it,” Cullors said during the interview. “Films like these should be made more. There is so much information out there and not all of it is honest.”

Cullors also called for a new culture on what ability is. “We want our family members to live in their dignity.”

To destigmatize mental health, Rosenberg says the first thing is to educate people. Fifty percent of people seek psychiatric help in their lifetime, he added, but a fraction of them speak about it. “The first step is awareness to combat stigma.”

In coordination with the film, Rosenberg is developing an intensive national and community-based engagement campaign in collaboration with a growing list of local and national organizations, including the Independent Television Service (ITVS), who will be presenting Bedlam to national television audiences on the PBS series “Independent Lens.”

“We and our partners believe that the film could help alter America’s understanding of the crisis in care for the severely mentally ill, and in reaching a wide, mainstream audience, will help facilitate both dialogue and urgently needed change.”

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute and Upper East Films.

Originally published: May 31, 2019
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