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:
“Spare change? Spare change…,” two alternating voices called out as they sat on the edge of the Benjamin Franklin, Craftsman statue in Philadelphia. A nearly hollow McDonald’s cup was placed in between them, occasionally one of them would rattle it in hopes of drawing more attention.
The older of the two introduced himself as Brian, he is 57 years old and this is not the first time that he has experienced homelessness.
When Brian was younger he allowed drugs to take control over his life and he inevitably lost everything, including his home. He now views his relationship with drugs as “unfortunate.”
“And then one day, I met a pretty woman… and we moved in together.” Eventually, Brian began piecing his life back together. “I’m nice and clean now,” he told me proudly with a big grin and a gentle chuckle. Brian’s been sober for 10 years and four months– and counting.
“That was something that I needed to do on my own.” Brian attended a few AA and NA meetings but ultimately decided that the strong focus on God that many of the programs had wasn’t for him. “The way I see it, God didn’t make me start using drugs so, he’s not going to be the one that makes me stop. I have the willpower,” Brian explained. His recipe for sobriety is self-care and dropping the wrong crowd.
Self-care is one way to promote your mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Health says that their are five key steps to self-care: exercise daily, eat well, get enough sleep, avoid alcohol and drugs,and to practice relaxation exercises.
“Mental illness? Oh, yeah, I was in and out of mental institutions from age eight to 19.” Brian does not believe that his mental illness contributed to his becoming homeless. He is continuing to receive treatment for paranoia schizophrenia and regularly takes medication. “I would hear voices and– be very paranoid,” he seemed to be at a loss for words when explaining his experiences with living with mental illness.
Brian does receive healthcare from the state of Pennsylvania and is currently working on resubmitting his application to Social Security in hopes of obtaining SSI.
Brian does not believe that living on the streets caused his illness to worsen, he believes that it remained consistent. “Company helps,” he said while smiling over to his companion. “But not a lot of company,” he quickly backtracked, “I’m not a people person.”
“Spare change,” his friend called out in the background of our conversation, his gaze never wavered from his phone.
The two met at the shelter Center for Hope, two months after Brian made his return to the streets about four months ago.
Brian had an appointment planned with Catch, a housing program that he met through the shelter, for later that week at the time of our interview. He was hoping to obtain a one bedroom room through them and eventually move into an apartment of his own.
Subjects affected by mental illness: 2/10