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We Need More Housing for People with Mental Illness

Families face terrible choices when symptomatic loved ones have nowhere to go.

Source: Unsplash

Upon reading the terrible story of Paulette Reeves, allegedly murdered by her mentally ill son, I couldn’t help but reflect on the families I’ve known who have felt afraid of their own loved ones with serious mental illness. Like Paulette, they’ve lived under the same roof as individuals becoming increasingly symptomatic, but felt they had little choice given the lack of community housing options and long-term care solutions. The choice seems to be to live in fear or send a loved one to the streets.

Although those with mental illness are much more likely to be victimized than harm others, rare tragedies do take place, and are too often accompanied by ominous warnings. Ms. Reeves herself is reported to have shared grave concerns about her son with a friend, saying “I don’t know what to do anymore, I’m nervous. I think that boy is going to kill me.”

When families of mentally ill loved ones have such fears, it is critical that clinicians, advocates and other professionals take them seriously. Immediate hospitalization is often the best course of action but might require a court order to involuntarily direct the loved one in question to an emergency room for evaluation and hopefully admission. This process requires an experienced mental health attorney to not only successfully petition the court, but also guide loved ones through any necessary follow up, such as discharge planning, supportive services and other legal proceedings, and crucially, housing placement, otherwise he or she just ends up back home again… until the next time symptoms surface.

For many, this is an all-too familiar, toxic cycle that wholly depletes families’ capacity for anything but round-the-clock care-taking and worry. They fear for their safety and for others in the household, especially when children are present. Of course, they also worry about the loved ones in crisis, but the emotional toll of living under one roof often comes to interfere with an ability to empathize. Over time, this dysfunction can even exacerbate their loved ones’ already-persistent symptoms.

Unfortunately, there is a severe lack of housing alternatives for people with mental health issues. My clients have spent years on waiting lists for the few programs that provide appropriate supervised housing with necessary supportive services. In lieu of this, it’s possible to get creative with month-to-month rentals and home care teams, often consisting of case managers, home health aides and even security detail. But the expense is so enormous that only families of means have the option.

If this country is serious about preventing the violence that is at least partly caused by mental health crises, our federal and state government must designate more funding for community-based housing that is specifically tailored for those with the kind of mental illnesses that tear families apart, causing confusion, hopelessness, and heartbreak.