'Lost' Youth's Letter Tells Tragic Story
Today, the story's a grim one.
It starts with a letter I received last week.
The letter begins: "Dear Mr. Coates:
"I'm 18 years old. I live with my parents in Los Angeles.
"I have an older married brother.
"Now you know a little about my family.
"What I'm writing to you about is help for mentally ill people.
"I don't consider myself outright crazy, but I have a feeling inside me that's building up to the point where I feel I'm going to be before very long.
"I can't tell my parents or friends what all is wrong. That's why I wanted to see a physchiatrist (spelled wrong, I know). I need to talk to someone trained in this field who can ask leading questions to find the real motivations of people's problems.
"That's all and well, but unless you're rich, who can afford one?
"Three weeks ago yesterday I called a psychologist and found out they charge from $25 to $30 an hour.
"So then I called the UCLA Med. Clinic. They made an appointment for me to come in and talk to their social worker, which I did two weeks ago.
"They called me back yesterday and told me that they would like to give me pychological tests Aug. 5 and if I needed treatment they would start in September at $20 an hour.
"That's two months away. By that time I could be dead.
"I attempted suicide last week, but failed. Once again, I'm at the end of my rope.
"By the time you get this I'll be gone, but maybe somehow you can help someone else in my position. Thank you."
The letter was signed and there was a return address on the envelope. So I tried to contact the kid who had written it.
I didn't reach him, however. I got his mother.
And this, briefly, is what she told me:
Her son, she was sure, was a good boy. He'd done well in school and gotten along fine.
But he did have a problem. That much he had admitted to her and his father. That's as much as he'd say, though.
She mentioned that he had married as soon as he graduated from high school, and it didn't work out. He had trouble finding a good job. Some hospital bills had put him in debt.
Tried to Help Just Enough
She explained how she and her husband had tried to help him just enough to ease some of the burden, but not so much as to make him lose his self-respect. "He didn't want to be dependent on anyone," she said.
Then she told me that the day her son wrote me the letter he disappeared. He took no extra clothes, no money.
She had to keep hoping that he was all right, she said. But she was a very worried woman. "When he told us he wanted to see a psychiatrist -- if we had only had enough money, or if we'd only borrowed it . . ."
I don't know where the kid is today, whether he's dead or alive.
The tragedy of the situation is that even if I had reached him before he did what he did or went where he went, I don't know what I could have told him.
Mental illness is a special kind of disease.
It's a malady which the average man can't afford, unless he's prepared to be put on a waiting list for six months or a year to be treated.
I have suggested in the past that there's a vital call in our community for public mental health clinics.
But the only response I get is a cry from a strange, well-organized minority who claim that I'm supporting a Communist plot or that I'm trying to railroad everybody into mental institutions.
I wonder how they would have answered this boy's letter.