Friday, January 14, 2011

This Could Get Personal

There is a field behind the apartment in which I live that I've taken walks in with my best friend, my dog, Abigail. I guess the last time we walked there was in late 2009, when I was unemployed, and we'd had some snow. So I put on my waterproof hiking boots, and we snuck across the fence that divides our complex for the safety of the children who live here, and walked through the brambles and rocks for hours. Since then, half that field has been mowed down, and is being changed into a road. It depresses me to look at it now, though the half nearest our place is still field, with a nice creek. Now and then we hear coyotes back there at night, and some of my neighbors say they've seen wild cats come from back there. Not surprising, we have plenty of rodents to keep them all fed.

After that walk I was telling my mother how much trash there was back there, and how many cans and shopping carts there were left there just to rot. No one seemed to be taking care of the field, or to even care about it-the creek was full of cans and other debris. My mother sucked in her breath in horror. "I don't think you should walk back there. There could be HOMELESS PEOPLE back there." Homeless people? As if homelessness alone makes someone dangerous.

 I don't fear people. I really don't. I do fear ignorance. I've seen and heard several remarks and articles about the percentage of homeless people who are mentally ill, and how the mental health system fails us-as shown by the apparently mentally ill man who shot a US congresswoman and 19 others at a public event last Saturday.

Does the mental health system fail patients, and sometimes the public? Yes. Just as the health care system in this country fails the sick, and often people die as a result. I think something should be changed; changed BIG and changed now. We could spend lots and lots of time arguing about what to change and how, but that is not  my purpose here.(

I have struggled with depression since I was a teenager. Twice it became so severe that I was hospitalized. I won't go into details, but I remember clearly that after the second hospitalization, I was working for someone that I still consider one of the best bosses I ever had. After a few days back in the office, during which I was only working half-days and attending groups the other half, I brought him a brochure from the hospital about how to work with people who have depression or mental illness. It was as if, after working together for nearly five years, he became completely afraid to be himself, or even talk to me for fear of throwing me into a nervous breakdown. And I guess that is understandable-most people don't understand mental illness, and don't know how to react to it. Movies and TV make it look pretty scary, and not quite realistic (who knew?)

Now, with all the talk about the people who have committed famous mass killings and have been mentally ill, such as the Tuscon, AZ shooter and the Virginia Tech shooter, I am worried.We do need to examine the way we work with the mentally ill. We need to understand why many of the mentally ill often stop taking the medications that keep them in balance-the side effects can be horrific, and in some cases permanent, doctors often must try many different drugs before finding one that helps, and it is very, very hard to find a job if one has been hospitalized for a mental illness, which could in some cases lead to the homelessness that sometimes attends mental illness.

Fear and ignorance can stoke hate and violence. And this is my fear; people are going to hear so much about some violent mentally ill, connected with statistics about how forty percent of the homeless are believed to be mentally ill, and the leap, whether logical or not, will be violence against the homeless.

Yes, we need to have a medical care system in this country that takes care of the sick-whether of body or mind. Yes, we need to discover the causes and cures for homelessness, and find solutions where we can. We do not need to stoke fear against the powerless.