The suicide of a family member is one of the most emotionally difficult experiences a person can have. The abrupt and painful end to a meaningful relationship follows surviving family members for the rest of their lives, haunting them with questions of what they could have done differently. Issues of mental health complicate suicides further, forcing us to ask whether our institutions could have provided better treatment. This Plan examines these questions through the lens of the author’s experience of her mother’s suicide, culminating in a paper critiquing modern mental health treatment and an original play exploring the author’s grief.
The institutionalization of criminals and the mentally ill began in the mid-seventeenth century, and was originally seen as a humane alternative to physical punishments. However, as Michel Foucault argues in Discipline & Punish (1975), the constant surveillance and power of institutions designed to reform deviants have significant negative effects. By clearly defining “normal” and “deviant” behavior and exerting disciplinary power on those who don’t conform, institutionalization marginalizes and shames the mentally ill. For those confined to the institution, this process can do more harm than good. The author’s mother’s struggles with mental health and institutionalization, and the complex process of mourning her death, are explored in the Plan’s theater component.
“The day before Christmas vacation of my sophomore year, I got a phone call telling me that my mother had committed suicide. I drove home to Delaware that night, and, as the next of kin, made the appropriate arrangements.”
“There’s a sick vanity that comes with grief: I felt stronger than other people, and because of my suffering I believed I was owed this vice.”
“When I was in the Rockford Mental Health Center, ‘deviation from treatment’ included any kind of increase of emotion that wasn’t happiness. When we were too sad to speak, we were punished. When we took our medicine and smiled, we were rewarded – but that hurt in its own way.”
“Because my Plan performance was partly an examination of grief, I needed to involve a lot of other people in my emotions. I have always felt cared for by the Marlboro community, but the compassion and graciousness of my actors and plan sponsors was truly remarkable.”