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Film

Bedlam

Bedlam

Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, director
Upper East Films,
2019
84 minutes

The public health statistics presented in Bedlam, the new film by director Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, are horrifying: 350,000 people with mental illness sleep on U.S. streets each night, the nation’s three largest prisons are its three largest psychiatric facilities, and half the people killed in confrontations with police are mentally ill. The causes explored in the film range from the shuttering of asylums beginning in the 1950s (which led to an order of magnitude fewer inpatient beds) to the Reagan administration’s defunding of community health efforts to underfunding of brain research and a failure on the part of the pharmaceutical industry to develop better therapeutics. We can debate the primacy of these causes, but the misery and chaos generated in their wake are undeniable.

Bedlam is most powerful in its depiction of the suffering of people left adrift by our system of care. We meet them at their sickest, in the Los Angeles County–University of Southern California psychiatric emergency room, then follow their lives for several years. Their outcomes vary in relation to the social networks that support them. The film also tells the story of Rosenberg’s sister Merle, who suffered from schizophrenia. Her illness motivated him to become a psychiatrist and a filmmaker.

Shame is a powerful part of Bedlam’s story. It prevents some families from seeking the help they need. Fear is another driver. Monte, a young African-American man, mourns that people view him as a monster. Like many people with mental illness, he cycles in and out of jail for relatively petty crimes. His loving sister Patrisse laments that communities haven’t risen up in outrage over the treatment of people with mental illness and sparks a social movement demanding better health care and a halt to the use of jails and prisons as our society’s main treatment centers for mental illness. Bedlam makes clear that change is long overdue for a nation neglecting its most vulnerable citizens.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA.