Every weekday morning two women from my immediate neighborhood join me for an extended walk, an activity that we find pleasurable as well as healthy. However, one recent morning the joy we experience in these daily outings was put at risk. We found ourselves confronted by a young man pushing a bike who began ranting and raving at us, his anger building as his one-way dialogue increased.
We all recognized that his behavior stemmed from mental illness, but that did not relieve the edginess of fear that began to cloud our minds, and we sought out shelter in a nearby business. After the owner gave us a heads up when the young man had disappeared down the sidewalk, we cautiously continued our walk, but not nearly so carefree as before.
“He’s off his meds,” I said. He sounded just like my mentally disabled cousin when he went off his medication.”
My cousin Steve and I were the same age and in spite of separate interests we stayed fairly close while growing up together in the small community of Shelton. When we graduated from high school, I went off to college and he sought training in an airline academy in order to pursue his dream of travel, and was eventually hired at the Palm Springs airport.
Overnight, everything changed. I received a evening phone call from my mother telling me Steve had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and so began my aunt and uncle’s vicious cycle of coping with my cousin’s on again off again medications that would only work when he would agree to take them.
Steve experienced long periods of near normalcy while on his meds, interrupted by hallucinations as well as manic/depressive behavior when he stopped taking them, adding bipolar to his existing diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Yet as unfortunate as my cousin was, he was blessed with a mother that would never give up. She kept a close working relationship with the local housing authority, and saw that Steve never went without a home. She helped him apply for disability payments through social security to see that he received a monthly paycheck so that he could maintain his independence, and made sure that he stayed in regular touch with a doctor.
Because Shelton is a small town where my aunt and uncle were fairly well known, the community tended to watch out for my cousin. He was a regular every morning at Nita’s Coffee Shop. People were kind to him. And when he had a forced stay in Western State because he had slipped back into illness, he was never shunned when he returned. Unlike many caught up in the nightmare of mental illness, Steve had the support of both family and the community.
Steve’s battle with Schizophrenia and bipolar disease happened before total deinstitutionalization, which accelerated during the Bush era and only recently has begun to scale down. When Steve had a relapse of his mental illness, there were still beds available at Western State. However, by his death in 2006, beds for the mentally disabled were becoming increasingly difficult to find.
I’m guessing that the young man we encountered on our walk has few of the advantages given to my cousin. After asking around, I discovered he was living in a homeless camp. The Thurston County 2014 census shows 24 percent of the mentally ill population in Thurston County are homeless.
Not all people with mental illness have the advantage of family as was offered to my cousin. However, all mentally ill should have the support of state resources as well as local services from their community.
The recent Supreme Court’s ruling against warehousing mentally ill patients and Gov. Jay Inslee’s announced plans to add additional mental health beds at state and private hospitals are positive beginnings.
Thurston County offers an array of public, private and nonprofit organizations that help people with mental illness find housing as well as necessary treatment. Thurston County has created an online tool called “The Toolbox” which makes available a list of all such services. Those searching for help as well as those wishing to volunteer or donate will find “The Toolbox” extremely helpful.
We belong to an immensely giving community. There is hope for the lost young man that crossed paths with my friends and me as we took our morning walk. I want to believe, that like my cousin, he too is blessed with a community that cares and will ultimately receive the support he requires.