Love and Support for Persons With Mental Illness
My first job out of college came completely out of left field. My bachelor’s degree in business management didn’t offer me many opportunities in and around the Decatur area. When the opportunity to work as a “case manager” came up I thought it might be a good fit for my management training. The job was at the local mental health center and the “cases” I would be managing were actually people with chronic severe mental illness. While not exactly what I was expecting, I accepted the job offer.
I served as a case manager for a program that was designed to help people move from institutional settings into the least restrictive environment possible. Many had been institutionalized (warehoused is a better term) for many years and needed a great deal of support and training to move back into the community. It was my job to provide 24-7 support for those who were re-learning how to live in an apartment. I helped them with finances, housekeeping, laundry and cooking. I also taught them how to socialize together. They called me “Tim’s Porta-Party” because I always carried party supplies in my trunk and was ready to help them entertain their friends with card parties and bunco nights.
It was exhilarating and exciting to watch individuals who had once been written off by our society and warehoused in conditions that robbed them of their humanity come to life. It wasn’t easy for them. Some of them had to fight through the debilitating effects of severe chronic schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Imagine what it is like to constantly have auditory and visual hallucinations and trying to determine what is real and what isn’t. Imagine living a life that is an emotional roller coaster – riding a high one day and the deepest of lows the next. These people were (and still are) fighting back and working hard to take their lives back from this illness that impacts their ability to work, to relate to others and to simply enjoy life. Many are taking medications that help control the hallucinations, delusions and emotions. Often the treatments come with life-altering side effects.
I believe that people living with chronic severe mental illness are worthy of our respect and admiration. But instead, our society still treats them with prejudice, fear and rejection. Almost forty years ago, when I took on the role of case manager, I never dreamed that our society’s unfair and uneducated views of these people would remain unchanged. I would have never imagined that in 2019 we would have made wonderful advances in the management of mental illness and yet many of those in need of it don’t have access to treatment, medication and support. I would have been stunned to see that our answer to mental illness is to criminalize it and house these folks in our jails rather than to recognize it as an illness and help them with supportive, affordable housing.
In the past few weeks I have seen persons with mental illness demonized as gun-toting killers that we should fear or crazed individuals who want to harm your children. Persons with mental illness are convenient scapegoats for those who refuse to address the real issues that we must deal with as a society. That is not fair.
The facts are that mentally ill people do not commit crimes at a greater rate than anybody else and are not any more dangerous than people without a mental illness. Yes, you are seeing more people with mental illness on the street exhibiting signs and symptoms of the disease that probably make you feel uncomfortable. But folks, our own fears and discomfort are not an excuse for inaction. It’s not their fault that proper treatment is not available. That’s on us and the leaders who answer to us. Our fear is not an excuse for ignorance of the facts related to mental illness and its treatment. It is not an excuse to criminalize the symptoms of mental illness. And it’s not an excuse to use these folks as scapegoats when it suits your cause.
If we are to answer Jesus’ challenge in Matthew 25 we are going to have to do things and reach out to people who make us feel uncomfortable. I know that people with a mental illness – especially those exhibiting symptoms - make many of us feel uncomfortable. We can alleviate some of that discomfort by learning about mental illness. Check out resources available through the National Institute of Mental Health and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to learn the facts.
People with mental illness are in our lives, on our streets and at our door. Let us answer Jesus’ challenge and show them God’s love, compassion and understanding.