5.7.13. County Department of Mental Health

Typically, I arrive early, to the tune of about forty-five minutes. This is not an awesome part of town, as one would expect of a chronically underfunded County Service agency. The streets are littered and dirty, the building old and ugly, security guard in the lobby warily suspicious.

I state my business, present identification, and have a photo taken for the obligatory ID badge. This is an odd place, old and quiet, shabby industrial decor giving no indication of the work that takes place here. I guess it’s typical for such a building; my experience is so minimal that I really have no baseline for comparison. People here, workers that is, seem cautiously friendly. So long as I don’t pose a threat, all is well. Little eye contact at the elevators, although a stale but refreshing breeze emanates whenever the lift doors open.

I’m guessing that this is where psych students do their internships and clinical hours, though I have yet to see anyone who is obviously in emotional distress. Probably on a different floor, as this is surely an admin wing. I saw a place across the street, a heavily fenced basketball court above a parking structure, wondering if that is where the troubled people are kept, or is it elsewhere, part of the county lockup.

Research indicates the LA County Jail system is the largest mental health facility in the United States, so I’m fairly certain that I’ve knocked upon the right door. I’m here to add depth, realism, to my story, to get an idea of how things may have worked eighty or so years ago. Having read Cold Storage, having seen Titicut Follies, I think I’m on the right track but here, now, this is the big time, and what I learn today will guide the direction of that part of the novel, so it’s crucial that I get it right. Any punter can make this stuff up and have it be at least somewhat believable; that doesn’t work for me. If it doesn’t ring true, then it’s all bullshit and the whole project has been a waste of time, energy, and dreams.

So I sit down with a gentleman who is part of the county mental health system. The guy is amazing; he gives me a full hour of his time, during which I give him a quick rundown of what I’m writing about, in order to see whether or not I’m in the ballpark with this thing. Turns out…I’m doing it right. Whew. We talk about the changes mental health services have gone through down the years, the evolution of some treatments, the abandonment of others, his experiences during his residency at An East Coast Psychopathic Hospital in the late 1970s as well as the differences in patient outreach following the Reagan era’s notorious (my word) de-institutionalization policies.

Along the way, the gentleman shared numerous stories of his more memorable patients and cases (no names), various forms of mental illness and their manifestations, and some of the more archaic forms of treatment that no longer exist in North America today. I am indebted to this man for taking the time to talk with an unknown author, for being so open and interested, and for helping immeasurably with this project of mine.

On a final note, I think that what the people at County Services do, day in and day out, is nothing short of heroic. Charged with dealing with countless Angelenos in all states of emotional crisis takes a level of compassion that many of us probably don’t think about. Their work is often thankless, sometimes dangerous, and wildly unpredictable. I am so thankful that I got to spend some time among them.

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