The Secret Life of Melanie O.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
The Mental Illness/Homeless campaign
Our Mental Illness Awareness campaign is winding down. The report is out and available to download, and so far, we've had about 200 people download it. There's discussion and dialogue out there about funding for programs for the mentally ill, but it just doesn't seem to be enough.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that there are so many differing opinions on how to treat the mentally ill. I recently listened to a program on NPR that tackled the many issues of poor funding and treatment available for the mentally ill. (This report should outrage anyone who has a family member who has a mental illness.) One mother, whose case was similar to my own, had to allow her son to become homeless and get arrested before he could get any help. One father was told that no one would prescribe medication for his adult son until his son tried to kill him or someone else. They took his son to jail, but wouldn't take him to a mental hospital. So the father had to lie to get his son into a hospital.

The percentage of inmates with mental illness (usually Bipolar or Schizophrenia) in our criminal justice system is mind-boggling. My son Andy is now in jail. He routinely commits misdemeanor crimes like trespassing and doing runners in restaurants. Being in jail gives him three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and regular haircuts and dental care and a daily, supervised routine. His medication is given to him with his breakfast, every day. Why does he have to be in jail for this to occur? Why is our mental health system an all or nothing proposition? Why don't we have levels of care based on the needs of our mentally ill? Why do people have to get to crisis level before there is some kind of intervention? Nothing will make you feel more powerless as a parent, than having a mentally ill adult child who will not do anything to treat their illness.

Mental illness treatment should be available based on level of need. There are those who will not take their medication (like my son) - they need to be in structured, supervised housing. This isn't the same as forcing medication on someone. It's about providing care on a voluntary basis, to those who are unable to care for themselves. If there was such a place available, my son would voluntarily commit himself there, instead of jail. Why aren't we using 16% of the budget for housing criminals (roughly the number of mentally ill people in the criminal justice system) to create places like this?

There are others who know they need to be on medication and realise that life is better on medication than off it. I've known people like this who have managed to get their illness under control. But many mentally ill people are not capable of that kind of rational decision. They wind up in jail. Or homeless.

What bothers me the most, I think, is this notion in the community that treatment will somehow make a mentally ill person "well." You can not make a person with diabetes "well." You can not make a person with Alzheimer's "well." You can only hope to help manage the disease and help that person live as normal a life as possible. We don't allow physically sick people out of hospitals to wander the streets, go without food, and harm themselves or other people. But we do this to our mentally ill. It's a tragedy - not just for my son and myself - but for countless millions of others out there.

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posted by Melanie O. at 8:45 PM -
  • At 12:11 AM, Blogger gardenbug said…

    Amen. The mentally ill need an advocacy group like the downs syndrome people have. Your suggestions are right on target.

  • At 10:06 AM, Anonymous David said…

    Just want to say "that sucks". I hope your son is safe where he is.

  • At 1:45 PM, Blogger Kanani said…

    The problem is that mental illness is still seen as a MORAL FAILURE as opposed to a medical problem.

    The paltry amount of money we spend as a nation on MI is really shortsighted. Were to fully fund mental health clinics for children, teens and adults, and make services available for free, I predict that the workforce would be positively affected to outweigh any costs.

    I'm sorry about Andy. I know as a parent you did everything you could for him and though he is older now, it still bothers you that things turned out this way.


  • At 4:40 PM, Anonymous LivinginOz said…

    What baffles me, is that there is the argument that adults with mental illness should be able to choose whether or not they want their medication. We don't allow people to make big financial decisions without being "of sound mind." We don't allow people not of sound mind to make decisions on their physical health - but we allow people not of sound mind to make decisions that affect their mental health. Is it any wonder so many wind up in such dire circumstances? I'm not advocating going back to the days when people were chained up and given shock treatments - rather, I'm advocating places that are not jails, but that are supervised, where people like my son - who KNOW they need someone to supervise them because they don't have the self discipline to manage themselves - will then get their proper treatment and care. I live for that day.

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About Me
Name: Melanie O.
Home: Durham, North Carolina, United States
About Me: Female, American health and beauty-conscious professional who has rekindled a childhood love of dolls.
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