Venisa Clarke-Lee, Guest Columnist
When we hear about or mention homeless persons, we most times label them as 'mad people'. While not everyone who is homeless is mentally ill, a large number of this population is. It is often followed by the statement, "Him gone." One is left to wonder, where has he gone, and why?
You are hypothetically living your life as best as you know how. Suddenly, you find out you have an illness - let's say hypertension, or take it a little further, you get a stroke. The doctor makes the diagnosis and treatment begins. Rehabilitation is one of the hardest things you might have to do. The thoughts start popping up in your head and you have questions. Will I make it through this? Who do I depend on for support?
Life has suddenly changed; it now includes a medication regimen, new knowledge about an illness that has caused so much damage, physical therapy, and even speech therapy. You will need family, friends, church and all other social and motivating factors in your life. Then, a family member or friend offers to assist with your exercises. Another accompanies you to rehab/therapy appointments.
You are making progress through rehabilitation and life doesn't seem so overwhelming anymore. Why? Even though the progress might be slow and laborious, most family and friends help. This might be because they believe it is their duty or it is just the right thing to do.
Imagine you are in the same story, but instead of hypertension, you are diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental illness. Again, the doctor diagnoses and starts treatment. You are bewildered and oblivious of how you will live like this. The shame, sadness and imminent anger and shock attached with this diagnosis would leave anyone in fear.
The stigma that is attached to a mental illness leaves you terrified. So is your family. You ask yourself the same questions. Will I make it through this? Who do I turn to for support?
I say to you, your social support system. The same care provided in the initial case is also needed here. After all, why should mental illness be any different? Recovery is largely stimulated by social and motivational factors. This is where love and support promote growth and change.
So now that we are on the same page, let's look at the issue at hand. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in the United States, a mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.
NAMI continues: Some mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS
Mental illness is neither a respecter of persons nor is it selective in its population sample. It has the potential, like most other illnesses, to affect persons of any age, race, religion, social class or educational background. Personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing are not causal factors.
NAMI brings good news, though. Mental illnesses are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan. In other words, a recovery plan.
With that said, I must applaud those family members and friends who support and enable positive social interactions with, and rehabilitation of, mentally ill persons. Yet it saddens me when I pass so many persons on the streets of Jamaica with no form of support or even a person to offer friendly salutations.
The poignancy of the resounding comments by my Jamaicans, "Him gone" or "Him a go off", leaves me wondering, where is the hope for this generation and our fellow mentally ill Jamaicans? If interaction is so important to their recovery, why do so many of us think it strange to talk to a supposed homeless person because we deduce mental illness?
I share with you the horror etched on a woman's face when she saw me having a conversation with a homeless man. Obviously alarmed at this strange occurrence, she asked, with her facial expression saying more than she ever could and looking as though she was getting ready to run, "Miss, you a talk to di mad man?!"
Now I am not recommending that you go out and become garrulous to soothe your conscience. Everyone has bad days when they can be aggressive whether they are homeless, live in a home, are mentally ill or not. This should be considered when approaching a diagnosed or presumed mentally ill individual.
However, unnu duh, empathise nuh. Suppose a did yu sista, bredda, madda or fadda? A so yu wudda waa people treat dem? And family members, if unnu can prevent them from reaching the streets, please do your part.
There are many of us Jamaicans who have relatives who are hypertensive and diabetic. Speaking from a first-hand experience, I am sure if my father did not have family, friends and a social life to look forward to, his progress would have been different after getting a stroke. After all, socialising is an important part of any rehabilitation.
Psychosocial rehabilitation is needed for a person who is mentally ill. While we allow the psychiatrist and mental-health teams to contribute to the 'psych' treatment, we must not forget our part in the 'social' aspect.
If we give up on them and proclaim that they are 'gone', who can we blame for their learnt helplessness?
Venisa Clarke-Lee is a sociologist and human services provider specialising in mental health and substance abuse. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.