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Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Mental Illness and the Homeless
It has recently been reported that 1 out of every 17 individuals in the U.S. suffers from mental illness - that translates to approximately 20.5 million people. This is a significant number of individuals plagued by this galaxy of diseases that disrupts mental processes. Those of us who function “normally” do not fully recognize how much processing - within the circuitry of the human brain – is ordinarily required to perform even the most mundane activities. The daily tasks that are required to work every day, for example, include waking up on time, preparing for the day doing such things as showering, brushing one’s teeth, preparing clothes, planning for the day’s eventualities, taking a bus or train or driving a car. All of these tasks must be performed in an orderly, precise and timely fashion. These functions are required simply to get to a place of employment not to mention all the social skills, capabilities, human interactions, use of learned abilities and reliable memory, timeliness, prioritizing of goals etc. that are the minimal requirements to accomplish rather complex work-related functions successfully.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness.” This compares to the 6% of the general population that is afflicted with mental illness as reported by the National Institute of Mental Health, 2009. In addition, a survey was conducted in 25 U.S. cities in which the question was posed as to what were the three major causes of homelessness for single adults. The results of this investigation indicated that mental illness was ranked as the third largest cause. In addition, mental illness was also indicated as playing a significant role as a cause of homelessness among families. This is not surprising given the fact that living with a mentally ill individual places significant stresses upon the entire family. Additional fallout from these and similar studies is that individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are particularly vulnerable.
There is yet another level to this issue that adds further complexity and concern –a strong correlation exists between the state of mental health in an individual and the corresponding status of overall physical health. Individuals that are constantly distracted, confused and disoriented by mental disease are far less likely to pay attention to their physical well-being. They are far more likely to ignore significant warning signs that would ordinarily send people to their physicians. Furthermore, they are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis or other communicable diseases. They pay less attention to their personal hygiene and often place themselves in dangerous situations that often lead to bodily harm.
In addition, it has been reliably estimated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that approximately one-half of the mentally ill homeless in the United States also are substance abusers. It is a well-established fact that many sufferers from mental illness use drugs as a form of self-medication.
These extensive studies regarding the real implications of mental illness demonstrate that the individual overtaken by aberrations within the functioning brain experiences a satellite of related conditions including substance abuse and the resulting poor physical health. These conditions when taken together make it very difficult to find reliable employment and ultimately adequate shelter.
In spite of the fact that the scientific disciplines of Neurobiology and Neuroscience have elucidated many of the biological and biochemical mechanisms that are responsible for the galaxy of symptoms that are collectively regarded as mental illness, there remains a great deal of suspicion and the resulting stigma that is associated with those who are afflicted by mental illness. This kind of fallacious preconception regarding mental illness obscures the indisputable reality that mental illness is a result of definitive imbalances in the biochemistry and function of the human brain. The society, at large, has inadequately addressed this issue in a way that could produce meaningful help and remediation for those who suffer from mental illness. A reevaluation of the status of the mentally ill and homelessness would certainly be in the public interest.