Homelessness and Mental Illness

Originally written for the October 1996 issue of Real Change; updated September 8, 2001.

The basic reason for homelessness is not being able to afford housing. Mental health, alcohol and drug issues, however, can be contributing factors.

Let me correct any impression that the following supports a stereotype. A minority of people who are homeless are mentally ill, alcoholic, or addicted to drugs. The basic reason for homelessness is not being able to afford housing. Mental health, alcohol and drug issues, however, can be contributing factors.

If any of you read the interview with me in the July 1996 issue, or our absolutely wonderful chapbook that got a great review in the Stranger this is a shameless plug, you know I am bipolar. This does not mean I attract metal filings. It means I have highly disruptive swings in energy and mood that have nothing to do with my will or whatever is happening in my life. These swings have to do with physical chemistry, and for me, right now, they can only be controlled by chemicals.

I spoke once at Seattle Prep School, about the Real Change and the real people called homeless, and showing as best I could that not all the "mentally ill" are wild-eyed axe wielders.

I don't even own a guitar.

In the first question afterward, one young woman asked, "What is something WE can do to about homelessness?"

My answer was, "Take care of YOURSELF, right now.

"If you have long stretches where you just can't do ANYTHING, talk to your family doctor. If there are things going on at home you just can't talk about, find SOMEONE you can talk to about it. If a friend is the life of the party one week, and a dead rock the next, over and over again, get her to talk to a doctor.

"Because at least half of homelessness starts right here, or earlier - in child abuse, family alcoholism, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, schooling not completed for many, many reasons."

And there are people at work in offices in Seattle right now who will be homeless within a year. For some, their company will be "downsized", or their neighborhood will be "downsized" by the destruction of one more low-rent apartment building to make room for something that "brings more income to the neighborhood."

For others, it will be because the boss finally decided that your days out sick, or slumped at your desk about as productive as a hanged dog, are no longer balanced out by the ninety-hour weeks outproducing the infantry. Because he's never quite sure where you'll be next deadline.

Or that quiet, efficient little shipping clerk, Ms. Something-or-Other, will suddenly start mumbling non-stop to everybody and to nobody, "...sometimes people have metal bugs stuck up their noses and sometimes people have metal bugs stuck in their scalps and sometimes people don't believe them and sometimes people see shadows on the wall and sometimes people see lights in the air and sometimes people don't believe them..." And months after she's gone to the hospital, someone will hear from someone that 33-year-old Ms. Blank was raped and tortured by her parents, 30 years ago.

Some things just don't stay down.

To use myself as an example, again: my mother used to comment that at three years old I went through a "personality change", from being a highly active, outgoing and aggressive leader to being a sweet, passive, slow-moving dreamer. From then on I went through days when I read ALL the time, and days when I organized the entire neighborhood into wargames. I drove high-school counselors crazy with things like getting an A in Latin and flunking English composition, accomplishing amazing things in a special project and then going dead-dull on it. As I grew older the roller-coaster disrupted my life more and more. But I found "explanations" in the headlines, the weather patterns, coincidences with family news, or just "burnout". By my thirties I had become EXTREMELY introspective, and an accomplished cartographer of all paths of spiritual, nutritional, and psychological self-help. I had tried everything from Jesus to chocolate.

Even after my brother was diagnosed "hyperactive" (now called Attention Deficit Disorder), I was never diagnosed. Because I didn't fit the standard pattern of Attention Deficit Disorder. Now I know that disease created part of my difficulties in school. But at the time, Mom explained that I was just "too intelligent for them".

Even after my mother was diagnosed manic-depressive, I wasn't diagnosed. I didn't fit the standard pattern. I didn't have hallucinations. I didn't have rages. I didn't think I was God. Smarter than the rest of you poor dears, yes, but not God. And much too merciful than to tell any poor doctor that I was smarter than her.

I was, however, manic.

Even in the depths of my depressions, doctors I visited never diagnosed me as depressed. I was never suicidal. I didn't cry a lot. I slept. Solidly. Up to fourteen hours a day. I hadn't lost my appetite: I ate LOTS. Especially chocolate and carbos. I was easily confused, forgetful, not up to doing much of anything. But I could crack jokes and laugh with the doctor.

It's now called atypical depression. it's now recognized as a real depression.

Some of my searches yielded improvements. I was a child of The Land That Made Dysfunctional Famous, and the 12-Step program helped me learn to talk with people about reality and feelings - not just books and computers. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), allergies, vitamin deficiencies and a chronic lack of exercise all contributed their bit, and taking care of those helped me.

But my life turned around most dramatically when my sister sat me down and corrected my misunderstandings about manic depression, and I found a doctor who didn't have the same misunderstandings.

What can YOU do about homelessness? For one thing, learn the real signals of mental illness. Running down the hall with an axe is not really a common diagnostic indicator. (An extremely small proportion of the mentally ill are actually violent.)

Reference sites:

  • http://www.cmhc.com/sxlist.htm - Mental Disorders Index
  • http://www.onlinepsych.com/treat/mh.htm#P8 - Mental Health Info Link
  • http://www.mindspring.com/~hugman/pendulum/criteria/recognizing_bp.htm - Bipolar Disorder (Manic-Depression) - Criteria
  • http://www.mindspring.com/~hugman/pendulum - The Pendulum Pages
  • http://www.trauma-pages.com/pg2.htm - David Baldwin's Trauma Information (about PTSD)
  • http://www.mhsanctuary.com/borderline/ - Borderline Personality Disorder Sanctuary (if you've been told that BPD is a "character disorder" please read this!)
  • Reference books:

  • Manic-Depressive Illness by Fredrick K. Goodwin, M.D., & Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D.
  • Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, a woman with autism.
  • Welcome to My Country by Lauren Slater (reviewed in Real Change) working with schizophrenics
  • Media Madness by Otto F. Wahl
  • In the Jaws of the Black Dogs : A Memoir of Depression by John Bentley Mays
  • Driven to Distraction/Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood by Edward M., M.D. Hallowell, John J., M.D. Ratey
  • Women With Attention Deficit Disorder : Embracing Disorganization at Home and in the Workplace by Sari Solden (my favorite!)
  • The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook : A Guide to Healing, Recovery, and Growth by Glenn R. Schiraldi
  • Lost in the Mirror : An Inside Look at Borderline Personality Disorder by Richard A. Moskovitz
  • If you think you or someone you know may have a mental illness, please get yourself (or them) a thorough medical checkout first. Many things, from low blood sugar to allergies, can cause symptoms of mental illness.

    If you are already homeless, and you are having emotional or mental difficulties that make it harder than even usual to cope and solve the problem -- and you live in Seattle Washington -- visit the Access Project at 511 Third Avenue. They can get you checked out, and help you find the help you need.

    And if your office would like to hear more, call the Real Change Speaker's Bureau at (206) 441-3247. I'd be glad to come over. Folks from out of town, though, are going to have to pay transportation costs. :)

    © 8th September 2001 by Anitra L. Freeman

     

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