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Not In My Backyard!

By Elaine Cassel

The failure of the deinstitutionalization movement is receiving increasing attention in the media, in part due to recent reports of violent crime committed by people with a history of schizophrenia. 9 Highland Road (Vintage, 1995) depicts the political and social battles of New York mental health administrators working to establish a group home for seriously mentally ill adults.

Michael Winerip, staff writer for The New York Times, took a two-year leave of absence from the paper and immersed himself in the struggles of administrators as they attempted to find a suitable building, obtain zoning permits, and provide a sane and safe residence for adults with histories of serious mental health disorders in middle class Glen Cove, New York. Most of the residents suffered from schizophrenia, serious depression, and bipolar disorder, but did not need hospitalization. Winerip has written a gripping account of the tension between the community and the mental health system.

Most homeowners, whatever their socioeconomic class, suffered from NIMBY syndrome ("Not in my backyard!"). Local politicians, while paying lip service to the principle of fair and humane treatment options for the mentally ill, responded to the fears and prejudices of their mainstream constituency. They did everything in their power to impede the establishment of the home—in spite of the government mandate that the home must be established in the community. The mentally ill were not considered a popular constituency, and none of Glen Cove’s city fathers acted as if they were also elected to serve the would-be residents of 9 Highland Road.

A story within the story chronicles the tenuous and fragile nature of the residents’ mental health. We see them arrive at the home, adjust to the privileges and responsibilities of freedom, and try to escape the almost inevitable cycle of deterioration that will return them to the hospital. Sadly, the battle to maintain sanity is unrelenting. There are no victories—only temporary cease-fires.

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