Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The connections between poverty, homelessness, and mental illness

I just found out, via the Red Cross of Tampa Bay, that today is Blog Action Day, and people around the world with blogs are asked to write about poverty today. This is ironic, because I was having a conversation, a few hours ago, with a former professor of mine at my school, regarding mental illness and homelessness. Today was Disability Awareness Day on my campus, and I participated as a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), handing out information to students and others regarding mental health resources in Pinellas County, where I live, and NAMI meetings. When speaking with my former professor, we were talking about how many mentally ill people end up homeless. This is a very large number of individuals. Many people who are homeless and dealing with a mental illness that is untreated, also end up in jails frequently, because of petty crimes that are related to living on the streets. Often, these people end up in emergency rooms, because they have no health insurance or anywhere else to go for medical care. The costs of keeping mentally ill people in jails and treating them in emergency rooms, and driving them in police cars and ambulances is estimated by some social service organizations to be mucy higher than the cost of actually helping them in a meaningful way that addresses the root cause of their problems.

Also, as a member of NAMI pointed out to the St. Petersburg Times during our Mental Illness Awareness Week walk this past weekend, the most mentally ill people in one place in Pinellas County are in the county jail.
This recent article, from the Salt Lake Tribune address this topic. The largest number of mentally ill people housed in one facility within the United States is the number held in the Los Angeles County Jail. Jail is, obviously, not an ideal setting for someone to receive mental health care. If you have any questions about this, you should read Pete Early's book on mental health in the U.S. and the bizarre situation of people going through the revolving doors of jails, homeless shelters, the streets, and courts, while not being adequately treated anywhere. A woman who stopped by my table at the college awareness day event today, spoke about her son who is mentally ill and in prison, and her ex-husband, who had been in a similar situation, and suffered from Schizophrenia, before he committed suicide this past spring.

Millions of people have stories like these. Mental illness affects one out of every four Americans at some point in their lives. Schizophrenia, from a recent statistic I read, is actually twice as common as HIV/AIDS. I sometimes wonder about all the pink-ribboned items sold in the drugstores to raise awareness for breast cancer along with all the walks for awareness for breast cancer, the commercials about breast cancer, the celebrities who have suffered from breast cancer and come out to talk about it in public. I wonder, where is our pink ribbon? Or blue ribbon? Or black ribbon? Where are our celebrities?? Surely Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and other serious mental illnesses affect a number of celebrities (and I mean, besides Patty Duke), so where are these people at when the public service announcements are being filmed?? Where do these people hide?? Where are all our dedicated activists who are joining the cause just because someone they knew had a mental illness, or because their mother has one, or because they themselves have one? I know they exist, but when do we ever hear about them outside of the organizations that exist to advocate for mental health awareness?

Back in 1999, I became homeless for the first time. I used to think of this as an economic issue, or an issue that was caused by my physical health problems, or an issue related to family squabbles. It was, however, fundamentally, a mental health issue, because while I was in the process of moving into a homeless shelter, and then into my car, I was also hallucinating for the first time in my life. I was manic on some days, suicidally depressed others, and constantly in a panicky state of extreme anxiety and confusion. I had no idea, then, that I would be diagnosed with Schizophrenia many years later. I had no idea, then, that I was part of a group of people called "the homeless mentally ill". I had no idea, then, that it was not the last time I would experience homelessness, and that later, when I was homeless again, I would be far more sick, more psychotic, and unmedicated, and confused. I have always had a keen understanding of the feminist principle that "the personal is political". I understood this from a young age, and I saw the connections between situations in my own, little life, and the bigger picture of the patriarchal society in which we live. But I did not understand, back then, the intimate connections between poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and also, being female.

Now, as a feminist, as an advocate for myself and for others with mental illnesses, as a person concerned about poverty (who has lived most of her adult life in poverty), and homelessness, I know more. I understand more. And I want to tell others, so that they understand also. Any of these problems: poverty, homelessness, mental illness or a terrible combination of the three, can happen to anybody at any time. Just this past week, there have been articles in the U.S. media about formerly wealthy people committing suicide when their stocks plummeted and they lost their fortunes. The suicide rate, the domestic violence hotline call rates, and other indications of social problems have gone sky-high since this financial crisis started. But, these problems always exist, all the time, at rates which are far too-high for any responsible society to uphold. These problems are not addressed enough by enough people, and particularly not be enough people who have enough power to do anything to create enough change in our society. Change is needed, and whether Obama is elected or not, I hope that the people in the United States will continue to demand change from their elected officials, will speak up about social problems, will educate themselves, and will talk about how these problems have personally affected them as individuals. As the great Audre Lorde famously said, "Your silence will not protect you." I firmly believe this is true.

Most homeless people, which you will realize if you know much about homelessness, are not standing on street corners with signs that say, "Will Work for Food". Most homeless people in the United States are women. Most poor people in the world, are women. Most poor people in the United States living on welfare are white women. Most poor people in the United States are not the people you see standing on the corners with signs trying to get money for a drink or a meal. They are living in cars, in shelters (both domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters), in tent cities, in motel rooms, in rented rooms, on couches of family members or friends, under bridges on the streets, etc....but they are not holding a sign. You don't see a lot of homeless women who are on street corners holding signs. Women who are homeless have to worry about things that men who are homeless do not have to be concerned about - such as being raped, or being violently attacked and being unable to defend themselves. Women who are homeless are, in fact, quite frequently raped, and I have known women who have been through violent attacks. Women often have children in tow, as well, and you probably don't see a lot of fathers with their kids on the street corners, because they have usually left their kids in someone else's care before they got to the street corner with the sign. The women who are homeless and happen to be mothers usually also have kids who are homeless. So they are not alone. This, in itself, leads to another aspect of poverty: the inability to afford child care so one can work, a problem which keeps many women down and out for years.

If you read about homeless women, or women in poverty, or even working women in poverty, you will learn more about the connection between femaleness and being poor. This connection has been established for a very long time, and is well-documented, but not discussed frequently enough, just as the connections between poverty and homelessness and mental illness are not discussed frequently enough, and just as the connections between poverty, homelessness, and being arrested and put in jail with mental illness are not discussed frequently enough. It is time to step out of our comfort zones, people. It is time to start discussing these things. Discuss how they have affected you directly. Discuss how they have affected your friends, family members, and neighbors. Discuss what you are going to do about and what you expect your elected officials to do about it. Talk about the silenced topics. That is the only way that we will ever create effective social change. And the time for change is past-due.


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  2. Jen,

    I think you're right on about stepping out of our comfort zone. I know I need to. The irony is- it was my voices that got me to reach out to others beyond myself and help, but once the voices became more subdued, so did I. The voices periodically call me evil and sometimes I wonder. I don't even know my neighbors and I don't help my community. I'm embarrassed to say it, but I have been unable to take care of my home and to a certain extent myself, so I don't even consider trying to help others. I have trouble asking for help and trouble giving help. I think I'm afraid of people.

    You have wisdom won by hard experience. I guess in different and similar ways we both have. I just hope that I can follow your example and start advocating for others. Thanks for all you do.



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