Today I was honored to be asked to speak at the dedication of the Rain Garden apartments at Villebois in Willsonville, Or. This is the latest housing unit built especially for those who live with Mental Illness in Clackamas County, Oregon. Following is the text of my speach today:
Have you ever stayed up for 24 hours without sleep? 48 hours? Maybe in college you partied all night and into the weekend. How did you feel? How did you act? How did you look? Could you easily perform normal tasks like reading a chapter in a text to prepare for a test? Living with mental illness is often described as always feeling like this, day after day, week after week, year after year.
Think of the saddest day of your life. Perhaps when your first love broke up with you. Perhaps when someone you loved died. Your parents, your child, or even a beloved pet. Perhaps it was the saddest several days in a row. Depression, a mental illness, is like the saddest days of your life, EVERY DAY, for weeks, months or years at a time without relief.
We trust our brains to tell us the truth, what we see, what we hear, what we understand as reality. Today our brains tell us we are at the Grand Opening Ceremony for Rain Garden. We believe that. Why not? Would you argue with yourself that you were not really here? Maybe at a movie or perhaps enjoying a barbeque party? Of course not. But what if when you went to your home this afternoon, made yourself a sandwich with your bread and jelly from your refrigerator and then went into your living room, sat in your chair and turned on your TV to watch your favorite afternoon TV show. Then suddenly someone bursts into your home screaming at you that you were in their home, eating their food, sitting in their chair and watching their TV! They call the police and you are arrested and tossed in jail for trespass and burglary. In your own home! Or so your brain told you. Mental illness is like that, this really happens, all too often.
Can you begin to imagine the confusion, the pain, the sadness, the horror of living with a mental illness? Mental illness not only effects that way your brain thinks and processes information it takes away your own sense of self worth, makes you ashamed of yourself and because of that, often separates you from those who love you the most, your own family.
I talked to a talented artist who lives with mental illness yesterday. She told me that although people think she looks normal on the outside they don’t see that her brain is “in a wheelchair.”
Living with mental illness in this time is akin to living with Leprosy 2,000 years ago. You are made to feel unclean, unwanted, unloved and personally responsible for your situation.
Stella March, who founded NAMI StigmaBusters, says: “…stigma keeps families from accepting a loved one’s illness and seeking treatment for them, and it also marginalizes those who are afflicted. Why else would it be socially acceptable for them to sleep on filthy and dangerous streets? Would anyone tolerate an outdoor dumping ground for victims of cancer, ALS and Parkinson’s?”
Without available housing people are kept in jail cells because the judges don’t, or can’t, release someone to the streets just when they are making progress in their recovery.
All over the United States our jails have become the housing for our people who live with mental illness. Jails that are not equipped, or able to provide the medical care necessary for someone who lives with a mental illness.
I don’t tell you these things to make you feel sorry for those who live with mental illness, I tell you so you can more understand the disease. It is my hope that you also feel more compassion for those who live and suffer daily with this sometimes invisible, sometimes all too visible a disease.
You see, you don’t need to feel afraid of someone who is filthy and standing on a street corner yelling at no one you can see. You have no reason to fear people who live in this housing in Villebois. They may act different sometimes, but they are not dangerous people. For statistically you really have more to fear from the executive in a suit who stopped at the bar on his way home to wash away his troubles.
Today I think of my heroes. Those many people who made it possible for us to be here today, who made housing for the mentally ill a priority in Clackamas County, who fought the hard fight in the courts and in Salem.
Dana Tims wrote in the Oregonian yesterday: “Rain Garden, along with two group homes and two apartment complexes for adults with mental illness, is situated squarely among the 700 upscale houses and condos at Wilsonville's Villebois "urban village." Developers, along with state and county mental health experts, say this is the first place in the United States where mental-health housing was part of a larger master-planned community from its inception.”
A mother wrote me an email yesterday telling me how her child had spent 7 years locked up in the Dammasch Hospital. Her child was convinced their life would end in that hospital. Her child now lives here in Rain Garden. Today a life is changed. This is but one of the stories we will hear and share because of what has been accomplished here in Villebois.
Today I’m proud of Clackamas County for what has been accomplished, not only here in Villebois but in other parts of the County, such as at Meadowlark and at Fisher Ridge, in Oregon City, just to mention a few. There are many, many people who have put in hours and hours of volunteer time for our loved ones.
Clackamas County will soon be a model to the whole State of Oregon, if not to the whole United States because of work in progress today. Sheriff Craig Roberts’ Mental Health Summit is working hard to change the way we respond to those who live with mental illness from mostly a response to a crisis to a more proactive form. We must change from only providing services to those who are “a danger to themselves or others”. For the disease of mental illness, when left untreated, progressively gets worse and worse and less likely to respond to treatment. We must find a way to help before the disease progresses to that point in the first place.
Cindy Becker, the director of The Division of Health Services, and her staff are working hard to redesign the Behavioral Health System to better serve those we love. Her goal “To provide the best outcomes for the most people within available resources” will be the foundation of a much improved mental health system. A system which is being built with listening to the input of the whole community.
But this is only the beginning. For there is much work left. This project here today is not really done. For the promised infrastructure remains to be completed. It is difficult for those who live in Villebois to get the basic necessities of life, to get to their Dr. appointments and the like. The promised public transportation facilities and community recourses are still not here. Living here can be very isolating. My challenge to this community today is to finish what was planed, what was promised. Make it easy for those who do not drive their own automobiles, and otherwise find it difficult to get what they need, to live comfortably and without stress in this community. Food, recreation, and many other things, so many of us take for granted, are difficult when living in a community still a bit far into the suburbs.
And what can you personally do? I challenge you to stand up and be heard when you hear someone spread misinformation about mental illness and it’s causes. Take the free Family to Family class offered my NAMI and learn more about mental illness. Read Pete Earley’s book, Crazy. Read Steve Lopez’s book The Soloist. Read Rev. Craig Rennebaum’s book Souls in the hands of a tender God. Learn how Rev. Rennebaum has made such a big difference walking the streets of Seattle for over 25 years, simply doing what he calls “companioning” with those who live on those streets. Share with those who live here by buying and giving basic living supplies baskets. Coming from the streets often doesn’t bring with it towels, toilet paper, soap, blankets, tooth paste or even a broom, let alone a TV or computer. Most of all, be a friend.
For those who live with mental illness are us, our parents, our siblings, our extended family and our children. 1 in 4 families are affected by a loved one who lives with mental illness. Mental illness kills more people than any other one disease. Those who live with mental illness die an average of 25 years sooner than the rest of the population. Suicide kills someone every 15 1/2 minutes in the United States, 2 a day in Oregon, which rates 8 highest in the United States, and the rate is climbing. Every minute of every day, someone attempts suicide. Today since I arrived here at Rain Garden, over 60 people have attempted suicide somewhere in the United States!
Housing will change that. Jobs will change that. Not 40 hours a week, for those jobs are hard to find, and for those who live with mental illness, a “40 hour a week” maybe impossible to keep. Only 3 hours a week can change a life and make recovery possible. Any small job will make someone feel better about themselves. (Jobs such as working at the Warm Line, another program sponsored by Clackamas County Behavioral Health and NAMI.)
Mental Illness killed my precious son Tony. Please join me in this mission to make a difference to do all we can to prevent another’s loved family member from losing the battle with mental illness or having to live on the streets of our communities lost, alone, ashamed, hungry, afraid, cold, wet, and in squalor.