Juneau filmmaker Lisle Hebert’s documentary “Crazy” debuted on this site in May. While the 23-minute video addresses the connection between homelessness and mental illness, the title refers to the way our society deals with those issues, not the mentally ill people themselves.
I recently talked to Hebert about “Crazy.” The following is a condensed version of our interview. You can watch “Crazy” at the bottom of this page.
What made you want to make a documentary about homelessness and why did you decide to call the film “Crazy”?
Well, I’ve worked with the mentally ill for about the last 20 years both as a social worker and now in the mental health unit at Bartlett (Regional Hospital). And a lot of the way we do things, I think, is very expensive and somewhat ineffective. And that’s what I think is crazy. It’s not the people that we work with, it’s the way that we do it.
I think a lot of people don’t realize how much money we spend on helping people who are homeless or who are mentally ill, and usually it’s at the last moment and they’re in really a crisis state.
For instance, they might get picked up by an ambulance, brought into the hospital. That costs a lot of money in itself. That might be $500. Then they go into the ER. That’s another $500. That’s not mentioning the operations that go on, and the medications, and physicians’ fees and stuff. Sometimes they go to the mental health unit. That costs a lot of money. Basically, we’re spending a ton of money, and I think we could really save a lot of money, plus help people more with a different kind of arrangement.
What kind of arrangement do you think would be better?
That’s where you get to the real point. My main knowledge is working with people who are mentally ill, and I think that if they were in housing, which wasn’t just with other people who are mentally ill, more absorbed into a community; where they are able associate more with people who aren’t mentally ill, and also just feel like they are part of the community, because they are part of the community, getting respect as individuals. Because most people who I know who are mentally ill, most of the time they’re just like you or I or other people, they have episodes of illness. I think that would really help them out.
It’s a real balancing act. But I feel like if we had better housing and staffed housing, with people who actually care about the people they’re working with, and people who the mentally ill people could trust and develop relationships with, it would really help people.
Sometimes I feel like we just kind of put people in a box and push them off in the corner, and I know too many people who are mentally ill who deserve better than that.
Were you concerned people might misinterpret what you meant by the title, since the film deals with mental illness as a factor in homelessness?
I definitely was. I wasn’t that concerned that I wouldn’t have titled it that, but I like the title, because the title catches your attention. Of course, the first reaction would probably be the title is about people who are crazy. But at least you got, hopefully, hooked into the subject matter anyway and then you find out that it isn’t. It’s about the way we’re crazy in the way we work with people who are mentally ill.
Throughout the film you use dramatized scenes to set up some of the issues you talk about as narrator and with your interview subjects. That includes a scene where a homeless man hears voices and another scene where an ambulance picks up a homeless man sleeping on South Franklin Sreet. As a director, why did you make the choice to dramatize certain scenes?
Well, because I think (both of those scenes) are pretty pathetic, and I think they’re both fairly common scenes you’ll see in Juneau and elsewhere in Alaska. I know the street inebriate one is all over the place constantly. And the one with the fellow living in the woods, I think most people who live in Juneau, at least downtown, are aware of that.
I live on Starr Hill, and once there was a young man living up in the woods there. And he would walk by, and the shouting, the cursing, the having fights with hallucinations. I called the cops to try to get him picked up, but every time the police showed up he would pull himself together and act totally normal. So, eventually there were enough people who called in that the police were actually able to get him into treatment at JAMHI (Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc.), and he ended up on my case load, I was a case manager. And once he got on meds, he was one of the nicest young men you’d meet. His family lived down in California. They were wondering where he was. He was living this awful life of torment in the woods on Mt. Roberts, and that got him back together again.
This type of film could be made almost anywhere in the country. Other than the fact that you live here, why do you think Juneau is a good setting for a film like this?
I don’t think there is anything besides that fact. I just happen to live in Juneau, and this was a no-budget film, and so it was the place to do it. Also, I think maybe there’s a little bit more pathos in it because the winters are so harsh up here. Like at the hospital, for instance, we get people who come in who’ve been sleeping under the bridge on Gold Creek. And these people are beat up. I think they’ve fallen on rocks. The weather’s awful, the Taku winds are blowing, and they’re living under a bridge facing down a channel same direction the wind blows all the time. It’s really inhumane.
You interview a guy named Jack Anderson, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, has a mental illness, needs help with just day-to-day living, including housing himself. Can you tell us how you found Jack and got him to talk to you?
I’ve known Jack off and on for years, and as you might see from the film, he’s a very articulate, intelligent guy. I had also asked other people if they’d be interested in being in the film. However, some of them, I think, they were really nervous about it. There’s a lot of paranoia usually in schizophrenia anyway. And they were nervous about it, and not as articulate as Jack. I feel like Jack and I are friends, and so Jack was willing to do it.
In the film, Jack says the one thing he needs is real friends. Can you talk about what you think he means by that?
A person who’s mentally ill associates a lot of times with social workers, and at the same time, a lot of them are living in isolation. They don’t have many friends. The only friends they have are the voices that they hear, hopefully, if they’re nice voices. Sometimes they have nice voices, sometimes ugly voices. And so they need more human connection.
I think that’s what Jack probably meant. He’s really a nice guy, and he wants to be accepted as Jack. Not somebody who has a mental illness. He’ll lay that out for you, but there’s more to him than that. There’s more to all the people who we work with than just their illness. It’s like any other illness.
In one clip Jack says he does 40 to 45 percent better when he has a roof over his head. Have you followed up with him and can you tell us how he’s doing now?
Well, last I saw him he did have a roof over his head and he was doing great. His meds were working for him. He’s one of the lucky people, I think, who they’ve been able to find a combination of medications that do help keep him stable and alert, without debilitating side effects.
One of the solutions discussed in the film is called “Housing First.” That’s where you give a homeless person a roof over their head, some shelter. Then you address whatever is causing their homelessness. What are some of the benefits of “Housing First” as opposed to other strategies to deal with homelessness?
I’m not an expert on that, but talking to (experts), the statistics show that people who have housing can start living more like human beings rather than just like animals trying to survive. Then they have room and enough peace in their life to focus on improving their lives more. But if you’re sleeping under a bridge at night, you’re trying to find food during the day or alcohol during the day, or whatever it is to basically placate your inner demons, you’re on the ropes. So basically, you have to be standing up first and actually be able to live like a humanoid, and then you can start making some progress. Then you’re stable enough to actually be able to go to a meeting or an interview or whatever and talk to people, and work on your problem.
You’ve mentioned wanting the Alaska Legislature to address the issues of homelessness and mental illness. Have you shown the film to any lawmakers?
No, I haven’t. But I’ve been out of the country for about three-and-a-half months. I just got back.
I would like to work with the interviewees (from the film), who all are in mental health or in housing, to try to use the film as a conversation starter. These people know more about the facts and figures than I do. But if we can show people in the legislature the film, and then after that have a discussion with those people, between legislators and care providers, I think that maybe something good might happen.