Many thanks to those of you who left comments or sent me a note in response to my call for suggestions for a presentation about homelessness and mental illness.
I gave the presentation earlier this week and ended up presenting (a) homelessness data specific to Seattle-King County, (b) general data in in published research about rates of different psychiatric conditions in people experiencing homelessness (there’s actually not a lot of data about this; my understanding is that there is a national study underway right now to assess people experiencing homelessness through structured psychiatric interviews), and (c) the topic of “Involuntarily Removing Mentally Ill People from Streets“. I asked the group—students within various health professions schools—for their thoughts about New York City’s plan.
Many of the students were unfamiliar with involuntary detention for psychiatric reasons, along with the process for how that happens (the laws in Washington State differ from those in most other states in the nation; namely, physicians and other mental health professionals in Washington State cannot detain people directly; we must call a third party, called Designated Crisis Responders, and refer someone for detention). The initial group consensus favored civil liberties; they spoke of loss of dignity, the psychological and physical trauma that can result from involuntary detention, and the importance of autonomy.
When the scenario was adjusted so that the person who was experiencing homelessness and major psychiatric symptoms was someone that the students knew and loved, they quickly changed their arguments to support involuntary detention. When we love someone, we are more comfortable taking away their rights.
Like many complex issues, “right” answers escape us as more facets of the problem are illuminated. Involuntary detention itself is a complicated issue and, because most people are not experiencing homelessness, the majority of people who are detained are people who have an indoor place they call home.
Some research indicates that around 76% of people experiencing homelessness also have a psychiatric disorder, though the association is complex and likely goes in both directions: Some people have a psychiatric condition that contributes to poverty and then homelessness (e.g., losing a job); others become homeless and then develop a psychiatric condition due to the challenges of not knowing where you will sleep at night.
I continue to learn the complexities of working at the intersections of poverty and mental health. I am grateful that more people are interested in this work, too. I hope that things don’t have to get worse before we can offer better help and care to these individuals, who are ultimately our neighbors.