Community Mental Health Heroes: Homeless people evicted from a squat

Street collections are not known for being the most fun to do. For every person who stops about 100 walk passed you averting their eyes (a couple even walked into me). Whilst collecting money for Mind the mental health charity last Saturday a man walked past me carrying a duvet. When he saw us he shook his head and took a few steps back. He made a few noises and I honestly couldn’t tell if he was going to shout at us or not. He pointed at a collection tin and said, ‘You couldn’t have picked a better charity. They do so much for us.’ He emptied his pocket. There was a mint and £1.03. That was all he had. He ate the mint and put three pence in the collection tin, ‘I’m homeless, I need the pound.’ His squat had been evicted earlier that day. Three police cars and two fire engines had turned up to do it. Sure enough we met a few more people carting their possessions down the street, unsure of where they were going. A girl put 50p in my tin apologising that it was all she had as she was homeless. Another man had nothing to give but he stopped to shake our hands explaining that Mind meant a lot to him. These people had so little but they were willing to give what they had to help others dealing with the horror of mental health problems.


I can’t imagine what it is like to be truly homeless but I know at any time we are only a few unfortunate events away from finding ourselves in that position. In my first year out of university the only work I could find was unpaid and I had to live away from my parents to take it up. I was thrown out of my boyfriend’s house and spent a few weeks sleeping on the floors of kind friends. A happy and functional working life does not always go hand in hand with mental health problems. After a few very poorly months I am once again living on the kindness of my boyfriend as I have no money. If I didn’t have him I would be on couches again. Not only that mental illness and self harm including substance abuse go hand in hand. I know what it is like to rely on alcohol and pills to cope. I am lucky and have had support to make sure this hasn’t got out of hand.


Homeless people are over twice as likely to suffer from common mental health problems as the general population and are 4-15 times more likely to suffer with psychosis. Crisis say that, ‘In many instances mental health problems played a significant part in the circumstances which caused those persons to lose their accommodation. The mental health problem may then be exacerbated by the stresses associated with being homeless, which in turn will make it even harder for that person to achieve stability in their housing.’


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A Life Threatening Condition

Recently I have started a new job. I am feeling useful and productive and the structure to my days has left my mental health a lot more stable and positive than it has been in a good while. It is only now I am feeling better that I can truly consider the question that crept into my mind yesterday – What if my mental illness leads to my death?


Mental Health Research UK say that mental illness lowers life expectancy by an average of 20 years. This is the same effect as smoking and more of an effect than obesity. Even if I live to an age where I die of natural causes, a life struggling with poor mental health could lead to an early death. I have developed many physical symptoms from the stress of being ill from joint and muscle pain to stomach problems. I take medication that in the long term could have a detrimental effect on my vital organs and cause physical illnesses such as diabetes.


However the obvious reason that mental illness can be life threatening is suicide. Over 6,000 people die from suicide in the UK every year and our medical services are strained and no where near equipped to deal with the amount of people having suicidal thoughts. This year I have come to terms with my own mortality. It is true that no one knows when they are going to die, but as someone who has quite intense suicidal thoughts and intent for extended periods of time, I know that my life is in danger on a regular basis. I celebrate getting to each birthday as a genuine achievement. I make the most of time spent with friends and family I do not see on a regular basis as I know it would be naïve to assume that I will definitely be seeing them again.


Another danger is mental illnesses that include symptoms such as mania. This can cause the sufferer to feel invulnerable and therefore potentially put themselves in harms way. Conditions with psychosis can cause visual and auditory hallucinations that can affect people’s grasp on reality and therefore cause them to do something dangerous to themselves.


I do feel that the life threatening nature of mental illness is something that as a society we are not aware of and do not discuss enough. Partly this might be because there is no solidity to it. If someone has a cancer diagnosis for example they could be given a percentage chance of survival. This gives weight and gravitas to the danger it presents. With mental health there is no such luxury. No professional can tell me the likelihood of my condition leading to my death. They still haven’t quite decided what my condition is.


In my recent induction to my new job I was given a talk on end of life care. How we should all make decisions now about how we wanted to be treated if we are dying and what we want to happen after we are dead. We were all tasked with going away and watching The Bucket List. This seems really sensible to me. As I said, I have come to terms with the fragility of my own life. One of the things I really want to do is raise awareness of the life threatening nature of mental illness. Until we do this suicide will remain the biggest killer of men under 50 and people with mental health problems will continue to die young.


It is something we need to talk about.