Out of the Shadows - Homelessness and Mental Illness
The consequences of homelessness tend to be more severe when combined with mental illness. Studies indicate that a stable and supportive living environment is an integral part of the recovery process and is essential for maintaining a person's health and well-being.
Mental health organizations require volunteers, funding and donations throughout the year. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) encourages people to call their local CMHA branch or the national office to see how they can become involved.
Mental health professionals require better training to respond to mental health needs, specifically women's mental health needs, which have been traditionally under-funded. Most training programs do not cover gender issues nor do they even attempt to address how women's experiences differ from men's.
"Mental health is estimated to be the number one health problem within the next 20 to 30 years," says Tim Simboli, Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ottawa Branch. "And we are woefully unprepared to deal with this problem. The amount of money that we as a society invest in mental health is so completely inadequate; money is being invested in the wrong places, and people are not supporting what I would consider to be the best practices. I think we are coming to a point in time where we are going to be regretting not setting up a better mental health system."
Women's mental health research receives only 6.05% of all mental health research funds in Canada, accounting for roughly 0.42% of all health research funds. Women's biological, psychological and social needs are not included in the curriculum in professional schools, while most therapy and research is based on male experience.
"In no other field, except perhaps leprosy, has there been as much confusion, misdirection and discrimination against the patient, as in mental illness...Down through the ages, they have been estranged by society and cast out to wander in the wilderness. Mental illness, even today, is all too often considered a crime to be punished, a sin to be explained, a possessing demon to be exorcized, a disgrace to be hushed up, a personality weakness to be deplored or a welfare problem to be handled as cheaply as possible."
--Canadian Mental Health Association
Accessing supports can be a stigmatizing experience. Supportive housing options are available, but there are lists and a person must wait for extended periods of time, if they want to live in a supportive housing environment. Many people refuse placement because they want more independence and control over their lives.
"There is no one-size-fits-all approach to integrating the mentally ill of the homeless population back into the community," says Dr. Laura Shantz, who attained her Ph.D from the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Ottawa.
"Housing first (where you are offered housing very quickly directly from being on the street and homeless) works for some people, but others will do better with a gradual integration into the world of housing, through supportive or transitional housing programs. I think the key is to have a range of options available. It is also very, very important to have community support services, such as CMHA workers or the ACT Teams, available so that there is a support network in place to help with integration. These groups do amazing work with helping people maintain their housing. They can help mediate disputes between tenants, help a person advocate for him/herself with a landlord, and generally help to defuse small problems before they threaten someone's housing."
Many of these people have endured periods of incarceration as a result of experiencing episodes from their mental illness. Police officers come into contact with homeless people who suffer from mental illness and addiction problems on a daily basis and treat the issue on a case-by-case basis.
They often attempt to escort the person to a shelter. But the individual has the right to refuse shelter, and treatment, so long as they are not proving to be a danger to themselves or others.
Under the Ontario Mental Health Act (OMHA), law enforcement can regulate the involuntary admission of people into a psychiatric facility. Sometimes, police officers are forced to take the person into custody and escort them to the appropriate hospital for psychiatric care, but if this results in the person receiving a criminal record, the potential of re-integrating the person back into society becomes much more difficult.
The criminal justice system
Crime Bill C-10, passed by the federal government in spring 2012, has been internationally criticized as being irresponsible and shortsighted. The United States has urged Canada not to repeat their mistakes: mandatory minimum sentences and insufficient attention to rehabilitative programs.
The colossal cost of maintaining the omnibus crime bill will directly impact funding for preventative and rehabilitative programs.
Bill C-10 includes The Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act (formerly Bill C-23B), which replaced pardons with "record suspensions" and increased the cost and waiting period eligibility.
In addition, many people who have been sentenced to prison are released without planned psychiatric care, which can become problematic if they have a limited amount of medication.
They may also have release conditions placed on them requiring them not to associate with co-accused, to stay away from certain locations, or other similar conditions which limit their ability to receive support from others or access services within the community.
The Increasing Offender Accountability Act (formerly Bill C-39) authorizes police to arrest without warrant any offender who appears to be in breach of their release conditions, providing that the parole or statutory release of offenders who receive a new custodial sentence is automatically suspended. This makes it much more difficult for a homelessness person suffering from a mental illness to avoid being thrown back into the criminal justice system.
One of the biggest challenges people with mental illness face after going through the judicial system is stigma and discrimination. For example, to get an apartment, they need to provide recent rental history, which can be difficult if they have spent the last 30 days in jail, a psychiatric facility or on the street.
This makes finding employment a difficult process. Even most unskilled labour jobs require a criminal record check, thus propelling the cycle of mental illness and homelessness further into the shadows.
Although there are organizations such as the John Howard Society, Elizabeth Fry Society, and the St. Leonard's Society that help people in these situations find housing and employment, they cannot stop discrimination from happening in what is often a very unwelcoming society.
Ryan Moore writes about social and environmental issues.