Community//

Mental Illness and Homelessness

It could happen to just about anyone

When you are psychotic, as I was in the late 1990s, you sometimes misread other people.

But, as I have pointed out before, it is also true that those who are not mentally ill, including police officers and even health care workers, sometimes misread those of us who are psychotic.

Twenty years ago, at a time when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I began to slip into psychosis for the second time.

My first break had occurred in March 1997, when I was hospitalized at the USC psych ward.

Over the years, I have written quite a bit about my relapse in January 1999.  Some of my op-eds have gone into detail about my six-hour trek across L.A. County when I fled my then-girlfriend Barbara’s condo because I feared that I would be blamed for a series of crimes across the country.

In an April 2005 piece for the L.A. Times, I described how I heard ethereal music when I was trampling down Venice Boulevard, music that I thought might be welcoming me to heaven.  With cars racing down the boulevard, an east-west artery in L.A., I began to cry and stamped my feet.

Tempted though I was to commit suicide, I refused to jump in front of the vehicles, probably because at some level I had a will to survive.

I then kept walking to Sepulveda Boulevard, where there was a traffic light.  When I got to the intersection, I had extinguished the gravest and most immediate threat to my life at that point.

Concerning the trek, I have written less about the fact that, early on in my journey, whose zig-zag path must have covered close to a marathon, I stopped at Glendale Memorial Hospital.

When I entered the facility with a knapsack strapped around my back, an orderly asked me if I was having a heart attack.

Then I heard a hospital official announce over a loudspeaker: “Disarm the homeless person!”

As I wrote in the L.A. Times in December 2008, roughly 10 years after my trek, I thought that the hospital official was referring to me, even though I was “neither armed, nor homeless,” so I bolted out of Glendale Memorial.

When I think back on that time in my life, I realize that it was not only the hospital officials who might have thought that I was homeless.

I don’t think anyone feared that I was armed.  I am not and never have been a gun owner.

But some people, including friends, colleagues and family members, were picking up on signs that something was quite wrong in my life, that I was spiraling into a vortex of doom.

As it turned out, later on that January 1999 day, at the end of my trek, I would be hospitalized for 72 hours at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute on an involuntary hold.

I had actually made it on my own to the UCLA psych ward and walked into the facility voluntarily.

At that time, I was asked if I was suicidal, and I said that I was.

Then I was asked if I was a threat to others, and I said that I was not.  However, because I was terrified that I might be assassinated, one of my delusions, I told my then-psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McGrail, and the admitting doctor that I had the right to defend myself.

Dr. McGrail assessed me to be a danger to myself and others and committed me to the hospital on a 72-hour hold.

He did so under the 5150 provision of a state law that was signed by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s.

That was around the time that California, New York and other states began to de-institutionalize the mentally ill from psychiatric hospitals, some of which were viewed as “snake pits,” inhumane facilities.

It would be simplistic to say that the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1960s and 1970s has led to the problem of homelessness in California, New York and elsewhere in this country.

There are so many other factors that have played a role in this crisis, such as the nature of our capitalist system and its inherent inequities; the lack of decent and affordable health care for some people, even with the relative stabilization of health insurance markets under Obamacare; systemic racism; substance abuse; domestic violence; a lack of job skills for many in our information age; and the poor treatment of our increasing number of veterans back from Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat missions.

Most of those factors did not and do not apply to me.

I was not homeless; I was just a person with a family history of depression, psychosis and suicide.

During my 72-hour stay at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute in January 1999, I got back on my meds, which I had stopped taking for perhaps a week.  As I have written before, I had stopped taking them, not out of rebelliousness, but because I had lost my bearings and become absent-minded, which is not uncommon for someone lost in the throes of psychosis.

And even though I was never a threat to anyone but myself, I had, in the minds of many others, started to act a bit oddly.

People had begun to notice, and some were worried about me.

Barbara, who is now my wife, had started taking notes about my paranoid delusions, such as my fear that the mirrors in the house were see-through and that the condo was bugged.

My co-workers at L.A. Weekly, where I worked as a proofreader, were concerned about my appearance, in particular my beard, which looked more than a little unruly and grizzled.

There was the day in January 1999 when Manohla Dargis, now a chief film critic for the New York Times, who was then the film editor at the Weekly, sat down next to me in the proofreading room and said, “Everyone is afraid to ask you, so I’m going to ask you: What’s with this voluminous beard?”

And shortly thereafter, my parents, who came to L.A. to visit in early 1999, likewise commented on and were distressed that my beard was unkempt and my jeans were ripped and dirty.

It bears repeating that I was not homeless.

I did not have to endure the brutal existence of a life on the streets.

But, like many people with mental illness, I might have ended up homeless, were it not for the fact that my father had made some money over the years and helped me out.

According to a 2018 count by USC and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there are between 50,000 to 60,000 homeless people living in Los Angles County on any given night.

And roughly 27% of the adult homeless in L.A. County grapples with a serious mental illness.

While the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that approximately 1 in 5 people in the U.S. suffers from a mental disorder, those with a serious mental illness, including schizophrenia, make up a much smaller percentage, around 4% of adults in this country.

That means that those who battle serious mental illness are far more likely than the general population to become homeless.

Of course, other demographic groups are also heavily represented among the homeless, including African-Americans, veterans, those with substance abuse issues and those fleeing domestic violence.

As policymakers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and many other communities in our country search to come up with solutions for homelessness, we should keep in mind that we are all capable of hitting hard times, that every one of us has a preexisting condition of a sort, that we all need health care and that we all have the right to be treated with dignity.

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