At my last outreach, a volunteer said in a moment of frustration, “Why don’t the lazy people just get out of bed and work?” He was referring to the homeless, to the mentally ill. He was referring not to his own opinion and prejudiced perspective, but to what people say about the homeless and the mentally ill. Depression is as simple as “getting out of bed” and finding work.
I could go on and on about why this is a major misconception, but I’ll keep it simple. As it stands, we don’t understand the mind, and we don’t have a full grasp of medicine to cure the misfiring biology (and even if we did, how would we distribute it in a broken economy?). I know people who suffer from everything from depression to psychosis, and I live with it myself (mental illness), and it’s difficult. The answer isn’t just to “get up out of bed,” whatever that may mean. It’s a meaningless statement, certainly unhelpful. It doesn’t do anything except for stigmatize.
What is the relation between mental illness and homelessness, you might be wondering? Well, I’ll say this: Compassion is key, and when people aren’t compassionate, they exacerbate these mental conditions that run rampant in our society, from the mentally ill to the homeless and mentally ill. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it. It doesn’t get easier. We do this with homelessness unapologetically (exacerbate fragile circumstances).
Stigma is a huge component to all of this, of course. We stigmatize the mentally ill and we stigmatize the homeless, and the two go hand in hand, in more ways than one, as many mentally ill people are homeless. There are many people, including me, who would be homeless if their mental illness was allowed to tell the full story. Homelessness is a death sentence, assuredly, especially if you have mental illness: Your mental suffering will catch up with you eventually, and sentence you to die, whether through suicide or through the inability to care for yourself.
I don’t want to dwell on the complicated ways in which mental illness and homelessness are linked, except to say that if a person is homeless, there is a huge chance that they have a mental disease. You can’t expect them to function as a consequence. I can barely function and I’m stable and on medications. A person without food, shelter, and resources is in a worse position.
And as the Winter season acts cruelly on us this time of year, I think of all of those who are out there right now, in the streets, in the cold, with nothing, and if they are lucky, a blanket to keep them warm. It’s supposed to storm today, and it’s so blisteringly cold, I don’t know how people make it.
I would again emphasize stigma, in closing. Until we break down the stigmas, the homeless will continue to struggle. The mentally ill will continue to feel alienated in a world they don’t understand. The thing that makes me the most despaired about these stigmas is the sheer unnecessary damage it causes, due to misinformation and skewed perceptions, which causes untold amounts of suffering for the innocent. Mental illness, homelessness, or even identity is not about society, and is not about the “Other.” If a person is mentally suffering, it is their private, torturous battle, and it rarely deals with society, even when the behavior breaks down. Homelessness doesn’t even impact society: Does it look like they are taking up all of the resources? No, in fact, it makes more sense to say they have much, much less. Identity is not everything, and yet stigma shames us all …