Bangor was shaken this weekend when a fire occurred on Union Street Sunday morning that resulted in the death of three homeless people and two more hospitalized.
People reacted to the news with sadness, maybe shock.
But I reacted with anger.
Statistics on Mental Illness & the Homeless
Let's focus on the homeless population for a second. Here are statistics from Mental Illness Policy, an organization dedicated to retrieving and having a place on the web for unbiased facts for media and policymakers around homelessness and mental illness.
Here's what Bangor, Maine, New England, and the United States is dealing with when it comes to our homeless population and the prevalence of mental illness in this population:
- On any given night in the US, there are over half a million people homeless. Half of those have a mental illness. One-quarter of the half a million are considered 'seriously mentally ill'.
- At any given point, there are more people with untreated mental illness living on the streets than there are those receiving care in a hospital.
- Nearly half of homeless people have a mental illness that leads to disorganization and poor problem-solving abilities.
- Thirty percent of homeless people are too paranoid to accept help.
- Most people who are homeless with severe psychiatric disorders don't know they have a mental health issue.
These stats are out there, programs have been put into place, organizations dedicate their funds, time, and labor to this population, yet 3 homeless people died in a house fire on Union Street over the weekend. By the way, it's worth pointing out that more homeless people have died in the area recently due to exposure, too. No headlines about those deaths.
The stats are helping define the problem. There are things in place to help. So, why did this happen?
Cultural Delusions That Persist
Having a family member with mental illness in the Bangor area, I have stood by for years watching this person deteriorate and vanish into a world that is very different from the one that you and I share. It is a place of delusion and paranoia. It is a place that is incapable of making reasonable decisions. It is dangerous and scary to watch. Imagine watching someone you have known your whole life become so detached from reality that it frightens you. You don't know who this person is anymore. You don't know what this person is capable of.
I think many people have experienced watching a loved one fall victim to mental illness and its coping mechanisms and symptoms (addiction, legal issues, etc). Perhaps we think this person lacks the willpower to tackle their problems. Perhaps these people need to reach a certain low point in order to gain the motivation to turn things around for themselves.
The problem isn't willpower. It's deeper, it's stronger, and it could even be structural, chemical. The cultural delusion that people choose to put themselves in places of pain and misery is incorrect. What puts people there is mental illness and lack of sound reasoning or impaired judgment.
Mental Illness Supported By Your Civil Liberties
The problem our society faces is that people with mental illness aren't getting the treatment they need. Another statement to make, which is the hardest line to read but the biggest elephant in the room, is people with mental illness are protected to not receive treatment.
From my experience, my mentally ill loved one is not aware of their illness, didn't see the delusions as unreasonable or unsafe, or worrisome. So, this person decides to live unwell because that is exercising their liberty to do so. Meanwhile, I am well aware that this person is incapable of reasoning (brain scans show shrunken brain tissue in areas of reason), yet, this person is protected to keep those liberties that continue to let this person deteriorate and fall into an abyss.
This is the problem- infringing on the liberties of a person unable to reason. And NOBODY wants to touch that.
NOBODY! Federal level, state level, city level.
A quote provided by Mental Illness Policy.com from the Dallas Morning News sheds a contrasting light on how we deal with Alzheimer's versus how we deal with mental health: "It’s as if we suddenly decided to respect the ‘right’ of Alzheimer’s patients to wander wherever they please. Sounds ridiculous, but that’s basically the situation with so many of the people we call ‘homeless.’”
I do not know where my loved one is. My loved one could easily have been another name of those who died in that fire. In fact, I looked to see if this was the case. It crosses my mind when I see a variety of sad, tragic headlines from local news outlets in the Bangor area. I've thought about this a lot and have been mentally preparing for this for years.
Not putting this out there for pity or to shock people -- putting it out there because it is so outrageous that this is part of my reality, maybe your reality, too -- in the past, now, or in the future. And, it is ridiculous that Bangor, Maine, New England, and the United States continue to let people be washed away into their mental illness while loved ones suffer in guilt and lost love, while resources become more strained, and the problem continues to persist and grow bigger, wider and more convoluted.
What will it take to make our town, city, state, country, and society safe from our own mental illness?
Who will start the ball rolling on correcting the course of mental healthcare with quality of life at the helm?
I'll wait and keep watching the headlines.