Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Earthquake Within our own Borders

When a tragic event like the earthquake in Haiti occurs, the hotlines are a buzz and now we can even text our donations to help the hundreds of thousands left homeless and in need. Everything is made easy for us. Our news programs flash the telephone and text numbers while bombarding us with devastating images. I just received my umpteenth e-mail alert.

While I applaud these efforts; the heartfelt generosity I see outpouring from my countrymen and women to strangers across the globe makes me wonder; how can many of these same people literally step over the homeless on our own streets? We divert our glances and quicken our pace. Sure, some of us give money to charities, but the homeless remain.

An earthquake occurred within our own borders a long time ago and we have been feeling the aftershocks for decades. The US homeless population rivals the numbers of people afflicted by the Earthquake in Haiti and up to a third have a severe form of mental illness. We have become so accustomed to it that we don’t even see the victims on the street anymore.

What happened? Well part of what happened was that beginning in the 1960’s, an explosion of former state hospital patients were released into our communities. The premise was that community mental health services were not only more humane, but less costly.

The whole process was coordinated poorly; housing could not be secured to keep pace with the number of patients being released and remains a problem today. This started the homeless problem and since housing continues to be a problem, so does homelessness. On top of that, the sickest of the sick were also released; those who, through no fault of their own, would never recover enough to participate in their own care. My brother Paul was one of them.

The flow of patients released into the community continued, unabated, over decades, and the homeless population continued to grow. So did our prison population. The sickest of the sick, not only do not understand they are sick, they do not have the life skills required to maintain their physical, let alone mental health.

Yes, I can hear you. Many people with a severe mental illness can live productive lives in the community. I am not talking about them. Yes, the community system can work for many people with severe forms of mental illness, but not all.

The sickest of the sick cannot manage the maze of rules and regulations they run into on the “outside”. They don’t even know how to cook their own food and buy their own groceries, yet they are expected to do just that. Adult homes are the last resort for people like my brother and now they will be closed due to the latest Supreme Court ruling that they are unconstitutional.

Virtually no long-term care facilities are available to people who are so sick due to a mental illness that they are made incapable of living on their own – to the point where they could die – unless of course, they also have a debilitating illness in some other organ of their body, or the person is over 64 or under 21. I know, it’s confusing isn’t it? But that’s the way it is. This is discrimination pure and simple.

I think about the hundreds of thousands of homeless people in our own country; a large portion of them are just plain sick and need our help. Many wind up in prison because of incidents that occurred while they were having a psychotic episode. They are all someone's son or daughter, sister or brother, yet we still just step over them or look the other way. It's very sad.

For more on why there are no long-term care facilities available for people with severe mental illness and what you can do to change it, please read my post, End Discrimination Against the Severely Mentally Ill.

1 comment:

  1. You've done it again Ilene. This is a great metaphor for what happened in the 60's and you really summarized how it is still continuing today.