May is Mental Health Awareness Month in America. Mental Health America has been been spreading awareness specifically during the month of May through the media, local events, and screenings since 1949.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2009 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffered from a severe mental illness. To put this into perspective, only 6% of Americans overall were considered severely mentally ill.
In 2015 the U.S. Conference of Mayors conducted a study in which 22 cities were asked to identify what the three leading causes of homelessness are in their communities. Mental illness was listed as the third largest cause for the homelessness of individuals and was submitted by 40 percent of the cities. Whereas, in regards to families experiencing mental illnesses, only 20% percent of cities attributed mental illness as a cause.
In 2017 The National Coalition for the Homeless stated, “According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, one third of people experiencing homelessness in the United States suffer from some form of severe mental illness.” This shows up to a 13% increase since 2009. This was also the first year that the homeless population in America rose since 2010.
Poor mental health can severely affect a person’s daily life, making seemingly easy tasks seem unbearable, in particular self-care and house-hold management seem to suffer the most. Those living with mental illnesses may also experience difficulty forming and stabilizing relationships as well as misinterpreting others’ guidance and acting rationally. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, those diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are at the most risk for experiencing conditions that lead to homelessness.
We spoke to 10 homeless individuals about mental illness and how it has (or has not) affected them through out their lifetimes. These are their stories:
Mr. Ronald was rummaging through trash in his pockets and mumbling to himself just outside of the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building. As we approached he appeared attentive and eager to engage in conversation.
“Hi, my name’s Ronald, but, you can call me Mr. Ronald,” he told me after I explained who I was. Mr. Ronald actually introduced himself again shortly after this when we began taking photos and asked for my name, seemingly unaware that we had already passed introductions.
“I’m, uh, 92. Yeah, I’m about 92 years old.” Mr. Ronald looked to be about middle age, the unkempt hair on his face had started to sprout scattered bits of grey. The question seemed to perplex him. He thought for a moment, one hand on his hip and the other raised towards the sky, pointing at numbers involved in a math equation he was working through in his head.
“Oh, I’m not homeless,” Mr. Ronald states confidently. He claimed to be in an in between state of living. He wore layers of clothing, even though the weather was on the warmer side that Saturday afternoon, that were covered in stains. This is typical behavior for the homeless, they will often layer their clothing so that they do not have as much to carry when they travel. Mr. Ronald also loves to accessorize, his wrists were covered with various bracelets and watches that he seemed to associate with different events in his life.
He claims that he has been in this in between state for the past 92 months. Yes, the number of months does coralate with his age. But to Mr. Ronald, that’s how long it feels like.
Mr. Ronald’s explanation for what he has been up to was incredibly hard to follow. He spoke quickly and listed numbers, letters, and various banks in a long string of sentences. It appeared that he may have been trying to acquire a job at a bank, but I was unable to get a clear confirmation. At one point he flashed a wad of what appeared to be fake one hundred dollars bills just out of his pocket a couple of time and raised his eyebrows before looking the other direction. “You made that yourself?” I asked him. “Oh, yes. Yeah!” He replied, before launching into his explanation once more, this time with a different slue of banks, street names, and numbers.
“Mental illness? Well, I’ve been to therapy to, uh, help me be more open.” Mr. Ronald did not share his diagnosis but he did tell us that he was prescribed Risperdal to help him gather his thoughts. Risperdal can be used to treat severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. His behavior matched some of the symptoms that are associated with schizophrenia, such as repetitive movements, thought disorder, delusion, and rapid and frenzied speaking.
Mr. Ronald says that his head is more clear on some days than it is on others and that the Resperdal helps. Through bits and pieces I was able to gather that the medication helps him “get past hospitals.”
During yet another explanation of his work history Mr. Ronald began searching his wrists for proof. He stopped short and pointed at one watch that was frozen on one o clock and said, “This one’s from when I played football. They offered be a scholarship.” He was heavily involved in the sport during his high school years and was offered a scholarship because of his outstanding skills.
“I couldn’t learn from it and I lost my way,” Mr. Ronald had difficulty focusing in school and became discouraged, he never finished his degree. He quickly changed the topic after a beat of silence.
As far as his next move, Mr. Ronald is, “trying to get to a get to a place where [he] can understand the rights of [his] mind.”