Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Thoughts about Mental Illness, Housing and Church

Rev. Linda Kaufman
Last month I heard the bell of freedom ring at the Mental Health America (MHA) conference in Tulsa. When the sound of that bell rang through the room, I felt as though every cell in my body felt the call to freedom. You see, the 300-pound liberty-type bell is not just any bell. No, when “mental asylums” and hospitals started to discontinue the use of shackles and chains for restraint, MHA asked the institutions to send the restraints to MHA. They melted down those restraints, and forged the bell I heard. What an amazing experience. 

Ever since I took an overdose of pills during college, I have been aware of mental illness at a very personal level. I did not believe that I was worthy to go on living; that I was a great cosmic error. I am happy and amazed to report that I don’t have those feelings any more, but I know lots of people who do. For a number of years, I was the director of adult services at the DC Department of Mental Health. I met lots of folks who were mentally ill and working to bring recovery to this city. The bulk of the budget I oversaw was for housing, and when I first got the position I was confused. Why would the majority of adult mental health dollars go toward housing? 

Let me start with the story of Sam. He grew up here in DC, graduated first in his class at Dunbar HS, and got a full ride to Harvard. After graduating, he started a medical degree program at Howard, got married and had a son. And someplace along the line he became mentally ill. He lost his wife and son, his studies and was so ashamed of what had happened, he could not even stay in touch with his family. When I met Sam, he had lived on the streets of DC for twenty years. Because of an innovative city program, we could offer a small studio apartment to Sam. From that base, he got a job, reconnected with his mother and his son, joined Epiphany Episcopal Church in DC, and paid off his student loans. Housing was the first and most important therapeutic intervention. 

By the way, we don’t get people on meds so that they are ready for housing. We get people into housing so they can start their recovery. The Mental Health America conference in Tulsa was called, “From Housing to Recovery. Building Community. Building Lives.” It is housing that allows many people to find community and recovery. This is the call of the Church also: a place to belong. 

I don’t mean to imply that most mentally ill people are homeless. It is just that I know that two-thirds of the vulnerable homeless people in most communities are mentally ill. And I do housing. That is my job, my career and my passion. I believe it is God’s call on my life to end homelessness in the United States. Ask me about it. Invite me to come to your church to talk about it. Check out our website:  

The Rev. Linda M Kaufman National Field Organizer 100,000 Homes Campaign