In 2019, a federal report found that 20% of the homeless population had a serious mental illness. A serious mental illness is defined by the Center for Mental Health Services as a mental illness that results “in functional impairment which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities,” including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe, major depression.
Untreated, serious mental illness is one of the greatest contributors to homelessness today.
The key word is untreated. Hope for the one-fifth of the homeless population with a serious mental illness (and by some estimates, one-third) can be found in treatment.
Take the story of Bethany Yeiser, for example. Yeiser’s mental state began to deteriorate in college. In her senior year, she dropped out and spent the next four years homeless, suffering many delusions as a result of undiagnosed schizophrenia. She received medical treatment and has been in recovery for fourteen years.
“Being homeless was a terrible experience,” she wrote in Psychology Today. “To say I never would want to go back in time and be homeless again is an understatement. I suffered every day. But while I was homeless, several people, including my parents, offered me a free place to stay with no strings attached. I rejected everyone, choosing to spend rainy nights sleeping outside underneath an overhang in the front of a Los Angeles church. I considered the churchyard to be my home.”
Yeiser is now a successful author, public speaker, and the founder of the CURESZ Foundation, which provides education on the best and newest treatments for schizophrenia.
Unfortunately, treatment can be tricky to obtain for the seriously mentally ill, partly due to a condition known as anosognosia, a symptom of serious mental illness that impairs the sufferer’s ability to see or understand that they have a mental illness.
It can also be tricky to obtain treatment for the seriously mentally ill because of well-meaning laws. Combined with anosognosia, well-meaning laws that prioritize a person’s autonomy can result in prolonged suffering for the seriously mentally ill. For example, Yeiser tells the story on her blog of a mother seeking help for her mentally ill son who refused treatment:
Yesterday, I spoke with another mom whose son spent six years sleeping in a library at a Michigan university where he had completed bachelors’ degrees in physics and math.
Years after he began abusing his privileges on campus, his mother contacted campus security at his university and discovered that they knew her son. She helped him move into stable housing. But soon after, he left again, running away, preferring to be homeless. A doctor determined he was not a danger to himself or others, or gravely disabled. Because he did not fit those criteria, it was impossible to mandate that he begin treatment. She spent tens of thousands of dollars hiring a private detective to find him, all to no avail.Bethany Yeiser, “How Mental Illness Can Affect the Choice to Be Homeless” at Psychology Today
Should treatment be mandatory in some cases? It’s a controversial question deserving of a thorough and careful debate.
One thing is certain, though: There are effective treatments for serious mental illnesses, and there are success stories like Bethany Yeiser, giving hope to individuals and families facing scary diagnoses.