Homelessness and Mental Illness

I was talking to a friend. The topic was depression. She told me that, “I have a lifelong fear of being homeless and alone.”

I’ve had similar fears for a long time, about becoming homeless. Maybe that’s a common fear for many people who deal with depression or other similar conditions. But it can be so much worse for women, as they can find themselves living in constant fear of rape or of being exploited for prostitution (the same for many young boys).

Many homeless people simply die from such a hard life: hypothermia, heat exhaustion, untreated health conditions, malnutrition, victims of violence, etc. Mental illness can lead to homelessness and, considering how difficult such a life can be, many homeless have deteriorating mental health. The other place many people with mental illnesses end up is in prison, which isn’t exactly a better fate.

In America, we’ve come to consider this barbaric state of society to be normal. This is the American Dream meeting capitalist realism.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everythng
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 525-551

As I got to know my new acquaintances in the United States better, however, I was surprised to discover that many of them suffered from anxiety just as severe as mine— or worse. It seemed that nearly everyone was struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of daily life in America. Many were in therapy, and some were on medication. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimated that almost one in five adult Americans suffered from an anxiety disorder, and the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in the country— alprazolam, known to many Americans as Xanax— was for treating anxiety.

Soon I didn’t feel so alone, or so crazy. This may sound strange, but imagine my relief when I heard about a study conducted in 2006 by a life insurance company in which 90 percent of the American women surveyed said that they felt financially insecure, while 46 percent said that they actually, seriously, feared ending up on the street, homeless. And this last group included almost half of women with an annual income of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. If American women making more than one hundred thousand dollars were afraid of ending up in the gutter— and this study had been conducted even before the financial crisis— then perhaps I was channeling the same unease that Americans themselves were feeling in droves. The difference was that for me, the fear was brand-new and strange, while for them it was just life. So maybe I had it backward. Maybe I wasn’t racked by anxiety because I came from a foreign country. Maybe I was racked by anxiety because I was becoming an American.

As the months passed and I did my best to settle in and learn to live with this uncertain new existence, it seemed that all around me Americans were becoming more unsettled, more unhappy, and increasingly prone to asking what was wrong with their lives and their society.

Since I’d arrived in the United States a couple of months after the Wall Street collapse, people were talking more and more about the huge gap between the very rich in America and the rest of us, and about stagnation in the incomes of the middle class. Politicians were also fighting, of course, over what to do— if anything— about the tens of millions of Americans who lacked health insurance. In the meantime the nation was buckling under the astronomical costs of medical care, burdening everyone else. At parties or get-togethers, a frequent topic of conversation was the fights that people were having with their health-insurance companies.

Lots of people were also discussing how America could improve its failing schools. I read about poor families trying to get their children out of terrible schools and into experimental ones that might be better. Well-to-do families were competing ever more fiercely, and paying ever-larger sums, for coveted spots at good schools, and at the same time competing ferociously in the workplace for the salaries they needed to pay the out-of-control expenses of not only private schools but also of college down the road.

The American dream seemed to be in trouble.

Unprepared for all this, I struggled to reconcile myself to it all— to my new home, to the excitement of this country’s possibility, but also to the intense anxiety and uncertainty that America wrought, on me and seemingly most everyone I met.


Kindle Locations 3802-3849

This could have been a scene from a Charles Dickens novel depicting the impoverished suffering of the nineteenth century. It could have been a scene in some dirt-poor Third World country. But it took place in an otherwise clean and orderly twenty-first-century New York City subway car, not long after my arrival in the United States, and it left me disturbed for days. I had seen homeless people before, of course. But never in my life had I seen such an utter, complete, total wreck of a human being as that man on the New York City subway, and certainly never back home in Helsinki.

The Nordic countries have their psychiatric patients, alcoholics, drug addicts, and unemployed, but I couldn’t imagine a person in a similar state roaming the streets of Finland’s capital or any other Nordic city. Usually everyone has someplace to stay, if not in public housing, then in a decent shelter. And while you see the occasional person talking to themselves in public, the health-care systems reach more of the mentally ill than in the United States. Encountering the man on the New York subway was one of the moments that made it clear to me early on that in the United States you are really on your own.

Eventually I got so used to seeing the homeless that I stopped paying attention. Instead my attention was drawn to the other end of the spectrum.

As I began meeting people and sometimes getting invited to events or gatherings in apartments with roof decks, or gorgeous lofts with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline, or brownstones with several floors and backyard gardens, I began performing a new calculation in my head. How were they able to afford it all? Some of these people were lawyers, doctors, or financiers, which easily explained their wealth, but some were artists, employees of nonprofits, or freelancers working on their own projects. Their well-appointed lifestyles mystified me, but I felt awe and cheer when faced with such uplifting examples of America’s ability to remunerate talent. The American dream seemed to be alive and well, not to mention within my reach. If all these people were making it, surely I could, too.

Finally I realized that many of the people with an expensive lifestyle but a seemingly low-earning profession had family money supporting them. I hope it doesn’t take someone from stuffy old Europe, like me, to point out that inheriting wealth, rather than making it yourself, is the opposite of the American dream. America became an independent nation partly to leave behind the entrenched aristocracy of the old country, to secure the opportunity for Americans to be self-made men and women.

I’d traveled the globe, and I’d lived in Finland, France, and Australia. Now in America I felt as if I’d arrived not in the land of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, but in that proverbial nineteenth-century banana republic of extremes— entrenched wealth, power, and privilege on the one hand and desperate poverty, homelessness, and misfortune on the other. A cliché, yes. But that makes the reality of it no less brutal. Never before had I seen such blatant inequality, not in any other nation in the modern industrialized world.

For someone coming from a Nordic country, it’s hard to comprehend the kinds of income inequalities one encounters in the United States. The twenty-five top American hedge fund managers made almost one billion dollars— each— in 2013, while the median income for an American household hovered around fifty thousand dollars. At the same time homeless shelters were overflowing with record numbers of people seeking help. It’s telling that many of them were not drug addicts or the mentally ill, but working families. The United States has returned to the age of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and The Great Gatsby, and the trend in that direction isn’t showing signs of slowing. After the financial crisis, incomes for the wealthiest bounced back quickly, while the vast majority of Americans saw little improvement. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent captured more than 90 percent of the entire country’s gains in income. This is not a problem that is only connected to the financial crisis. The share of income going to the richest Americans— the 1 percent, or even the 0.1 percent— has grown dramatically in recent decades, while the rest of America has faced stagnating incomes or even seen wages diminish.

The reasons commonly given in America for these changes are by now familiar. There’s globalization, free trade, deregulation, and new technology, which allow the brightest talent to reign over larger realms and to amass more wealth. Today the most visionary CEO presides over a vast multinational corporation, instead of having fifty top executives running smaller companies. The best product is now sold everywhere, replacing local products. Because of advances in technology and the outsourcing of low-skilled work to poorer countries, workers in developed countries need increasingly specialized skills. The few who have such skills benefit. The many who don’t suffer. At the same time arrangements at work have become less stable. Part-time and low-paying work has become more common, as technology has let employers optimize production, and as the power of labor unions has faded.

However, these oft-repeated reasons are not the whole story. Every wealthy nation is dealing with all these dislocating changes, not just the United States. Yet how different the experience has been in places like the Nordic countries, which have made serious efforts to adapt to this brave new future with smart government policies that fit the times. Rising inequality doesn’t simply result from inevitable changes in the free market. Much of it follows from specific policies, which can direct change in one way or in another. Even though the times demand the opposite, American taxes have become more favorable to the wealthy. Partly as a result of this shortsighted change, American social policies have had to move from supporting the poorest to having to help prop up the middle class. Income inequality has increased everywhere, but in the United States it’s particularly pronounced because taxes and government services do less to mitigate the effects of the changes in the marketplace than elsewhere in the modern developed world.

15 thoughts on “Homelessness and Mental Illness

  1. I’m in the same boat. The probability of me being homeless become exponentially more likely as I get older and the longer I stay in this country. It is not some irrational fear. It is not depression. It is the economic reality created by the elites.

    • It is many things. Even depression and other mental illnesses are ultimately social problems related to economic problems. Higher rates of mental illness are found in countries with high economic inequality which corresponds to inequality of opportunity, justice, and political power.

      Long term stress has a negative impact on health, including neurological functioning, and also a negative impact on such things as marriages. In a class-based society, poverty relates to other things such as food deserts, heavy metal toxicity, oppressive policing, mass incarceration, etc which creates a permanent underclass who are largely forced onto the black market to get by.

      It is massively fucked up. But those living comfortable lives are fucktarded clueless. And then these assholes dare call me privileged for not voting for yet another corrupt ruling elite like Hillary who is one of the key figures behind why are society is so dementedly barbaric.

      • Clueless and dementedly barbaric doesn’t even begin to describe these people. Having worked for and been a victim of people like the lizard queen Hillary and her kind, these people have serious mental issues and care only for their own status and affluence. The fact these people are given positions of leadership and are allowed to enrich themselves at our expense is the UNFORGIVABLE SHAME of America.

        What makes their behavior all the more disgusting is that they actually think they are a force for good. Here they are corrupt and morally ambiguous so deep as to not even see it their own arrogance and greed and they think of themselves as doing good in the world. They wallow in their own shit and don’t know how bad they smell.

        I was walking home today and an elderly woman was picking out recyclable bottles and cans from people’s trash cans. It was a hot and humid day. She was drenched in sweat from her labors. She patiently waited for me holding heavy torn bags of plastic bottles and aluminum cans and gave me the right of way when our paths met. I had an aluminum can in my bag I was waiting to recycle when I arrived home. I turned around and gave her the can. She thanked me. I continued my journey home.

        I wanted to share some money besides just handing her a can. But in my current situation, I cannot even afford that. That is when the angry and sadness overwhelmed me to the point of tears. The realization that I could not even help this poor woman because of how little I had.

        • This is how I see it. If we don’t use our society to deal with systemic problems and help those in need, then what is the point of having a society at all. I honestly wonder about that. Is a homeless person who constantly worries about violence and exploitation better off for being part of our society than a hermit living in the wilderness?

          • Civil society used to be a term I once appreciated and revered…the rule of law, rational discourse, accountable institutions, In God We Trust. But now, as you pointed out, I have to wonder what good is society if it serves only a few and then leave the table scraps for the masses?

            When the social contract is null and void and we’re left with a double-standard society where laws apply to one but not the other, then, as you stated, “what is the point of having a society at all?”

            A hermit living the wilderness has a better sense of civil disobedience than today’s American citizen-slave.

            “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”
            -Thomas Paine

          • Like Paine, my own views on society and government are nuanced, as the issues involved are complex. Civil society can be used toward many ends, but no doubt it can be lead to some truly horrific results.

            Paine got a taste of this when he was young. From his childhood home, he could see the gallows where criminals and the destitute were hanged, often for simple ‘crimes’ such as stealing a loaf of bread because the person didn’t want to starve to death. Paine even watched one of his childhood friends meet this fate.

            It probably plants some seeds in your mind from a young age to watch that kind of civil society in action. It was law and order, pushed to a brutal extreme. Still, it took a long time for those seeds to fully grow. He didn’t spend his life aspiring to be a rabble-rouser, radical, and revolutionary. Only after years of life wearing him down did he find himself on the shores of America, sick and penniless, with the hope of a new kind of society before him.

            I don’t think Paine ever lost faith in civil society. He just felt there had to be a different kind of civil society. He came to that conclusion because the new world he found showed something else was possible. The colonists were largely living according to their self-rule with the British government playing a minimal role, except when they started getting oppressively controlling with trade. Also, Paine knew of how the Native Americans lived which proved a society could exist that balanced both order and freedom. Some of those Native Americans had fairly advanced forms of self-rule which was the basis of the division of power that the Founders looked to.

            Paine thought was awesome what many of the Native Americans had going on. Yet he understood that the colonists weren’t going to return to a tribal lifestyle, as traditional tribal lifestyle for the British had been destroyed long before Paine was born. So, if a society can’t go back, how can it go forward to something better?

            That is a question that the more comfortable rarely ask, but it often occurs to those who experience all the consequences, all the harm and externalized costs, all the struggle and suffering. Like Paine, most people need to hit rock bottom or see those around them hit rock bottom before they begin to wake up.


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