Bedlam: The Film and the Book

Psychiatrist and award-winning documentarian Kenneth Rosenberg sheds light on the mental-health-care crisis in the United States.

In 1946, Life magazine published an exposé: “BEDLAM 1946: Most of the U.S.  Mental Hospitals Are a Shame and Disgrace.” It focused on how mental hospitals had devolved into places of horror.  The article helped to shift public opinion away from institutionalization in favor of outpatient care.  Further, in 1948 the movie The Snake Pit starring Olivia de Haviland showed some terrifying scenes in a large mental institution.  The movie led to some states instituting reforms to their mental hospital systems, and added to the atmosphere of public opinion that led eventually to these institutions being closed.  The ultimate result of the closures is shown in this movie and book by Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg.  Hopefully the reaction to the book and movie will lead to a better end result for people in mental health crisis and their families.  As the publicity for the book and movie explain:

When Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg trained as a psychiatrist in the late 1980s, the state mental hospitals, which had reached peak occupancy in the 1950s, were being closed at an alarming rate, with many patients having nowhere to go. There has never been a more important time for this conversation, as one in five adults–40 million Americans–experiences mental illness each year. Today, the largest mental institution in the United States is the Los Angeles County Jail, and the last refuge for many of the 20,000 mentally ill people living on the streets of Los Angeles is L.A. County Hospital. There, Dr. Rosenberg begins his chronicle of what it means to be mentally ill in America today, integrating his own moving story of how the system failed his sister, Merle, who had schizophrenia. As he says, “I have come to see that my family’s tragedy, my family’s shame, is America’s great secret.”

The book has been made into a documentary. The film version of Bedlam follows the poignant stories of people grappling with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other chronic psychiatric conditions. Impossible to mask when untreated, their symptoms shove them into the path of police officers, ER doctors and nurses, lawyers, and prison guards. Shooting over the course of five years, Rosenberg takes us inside Los Angeles County’s overwhelmed and vastly under-resourced psych ER, a nearby jail warehousing thousands of psychiatric patients, and the homes — and homeless encampments — of people suffering from severe mental illness, where silence and shame often worsen the suffering.

Dr. Rosenberg gives readers and viewers an inside look at the historical, political, and economic forces that have resulted in the greatest social crisis of the twenty-first century. The culmination of a seven-year inquiry, Bedlam is not only a rallying cry for change, but also a guide for how we move forward with care and compassion, with resources that have never before been compiled, including legal advice, practical solutions for parents and loved ones, help finding community support, and information on therapeutic options.