Thursday, January 13, 2011

Working for pride. Thursday, January 13, 2011.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday I talked to a young woman who was thrilled to be pushing a broom.

Kristina has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Before she went into treatment, she said, she had never worked at any job for more than a couple of weeks. Her delusions would get in the way of basic functioning, and she’d either be fired or quit.

She wound up on disability and SSI, but that process took almost two years. She had no access to medication, counseling or treatment of any kind, since in the U.S., these “privileges” usually come attached to full-time employment. In the meantime, she found herself on the streets, turning tricks for the most basic necessities. “It was horrible,” she told me. “If I was still living like that, I’d be dead.”

Unemployment in the United States is still pushing 10 percent (and total unemployment is approaching Great Depression levels). But the unemployment rate for people with mental illness is 90 percent.

Ninety percent.

In a place like America with so few social safety nets, and no health insurance for the unemployed and for part-time workers, that is a sobering figure. A huge number of these people wind up on relatives’ couches (if they’re fortunate) or on the streets (if they’re not).

Unemployment and mental illness tend to feed off each other. Extreme mood changes, delusions and hallucinations, or confusion can make it difficult to do most jobs, or even to get the kind of education or training needed for a basic job. On the flip side, the stress of losing a job often triggers severe anxiety and depression.

People who are unemployed also have a suicide rate twice as high as those who are unemployed.

But there are little spots of hope, and one of them is The Hope House, which offers a gathering place for people with mental illness, and a variety of services including supported employment. I went there yesterday to write a story on it, and I was shown quite the welcome.

The Hope House – located in a renovated Victorian – is a place where people can hang out without experiencing stigma or judgment. They can talk about mental illness without worrying about what someone will say. They can have a sandwich, play a game of bridge or pool, watch a video. And they can work with counselors who can connect them with jobs and provide the occupational and psychological help some need in order to stay at a job long-term.

For Kristina, “long-term” means over a year now. This is huge. The longest she’d ever stayed at a job in the past was less than a month. “I’m on medication and I’m feeling a lot better now,” she says. “I’m not hearing voices anymore and I can go to work … I like my job a lot. It’s only a few hours a week but that’s OK. I get to see people and I like to make things clean. I like to keep busy, you know?”

I speak to Ken, her counselor at The Hope House. He says that at one point, more than half the members there had jobs through their supported employment program. That figure is down to one-third because of the Recession. “We really hope it changes soon,” he says. “Most of these people are surviving on (Disability) payments of $600 a month. You can’t even rent an apartment on that.”

Things aren’t easy for Kristina. She considers herself extremely lucky to be working at a janitor two days a week, to be getting a disability check, and to finally be receiving medication. But she has to rent a small one-room apartment with another girl, and there is still virtually no money for “extras.”

But she has something today that she considers priceless – a feeling of pride. “When I was sleeping with guys for money, you know, and I didn’t have anywhere to stay, I thought about wanting to die,” Kristina told me. “When I go to work and clean things and talk to people, it makes me feel good to be here.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Not like us. Tuesday, January 11, 2011.

“No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver! No! I won’t trust in God!” – Jared Lee Loughner

You know what we want?

We want Jared Lee Loughner to be mentally ill.

For those who might have been hiding under a baobab tree for the last three days, Jared, a college student in Tuscon, open fired in a Safeway supermarket, killing six (including a little girl and a federal judge), and injuring 14 (including Democrat Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who at this moment is clinging to life after surviving a bullet through the head).

Gone are the days when we had to wait for the next day’s newspaper, or even for the evening news. Within minutes of the shooting, the Internet lit up with pieces of a puzzle that may never be completely finished.

Was Jared strange? Did he have problems relating to people? Of this there can be no doubt. Campus police had been called five times to address concerns about Jared’s behavior, including one time when a teacher felt threatened by Jared’s reaction to failing an assignment.

He’d been having angry outbursts in class, talking in nonsense sentences, and becoming more and more immersed in government conspiracy theories. A classmate told Fox News, “A lot of people didn’t feel safe around him.”

Nevertheless, Jared obtained a gun – a Glock 19 handgun, to be exact.

Armchair psychologists around the country snapped to attention. Within a few hours of the shooting, the media was tossing the term “paranoid schizophrenia” around, even though no one knows – even now – whether Jared has any sort of diagnosis at all. The failure of the “mental health system” was blamed. TIME Magazine printed six “warning signs of mental illness” that had been ignored, allowing the tragedy to happen.

Jared smirked for the cops, and his mom and dad cried and expressed shock and grief in front of the TV cameras. Neighbors said no one knew the family very well, but it was reported that his dad drank a lot of beer and was quick to anger. Jared was said to have been a loner, a bit of an outcast, and a pothead who wore his hood up even in the hot summer.

So yes, it appears that Jared may have a screw loose. But is he “mentally ill?” Did he have no idea what he was doing, even though investigators found a note in his room that said, “I planned ahead?”

This is a case with a little bit of everything. Jared is said to be prone to “right-wing rants.” Was this about politics? Or was it about the pot? Or was it about his parents?

Come on, come on! There has to be a reason.

Through the decades, there have been killers that turned out to be demonstrably mentally ill. And because the entire point of news is to inform people of significant events, we tend to hear – and remember – more about those individuals.

But here’s the truth – if you know someone with schizophrenia, the chances of him being a violent killer are about the same as if you knew someone with blue shoes, or a wheelbarrow, or a Springer spaniel. (The chances of someone leaving your neighborhood bar being violent are a great deal higher.)

As Slate Magazine explained it:

Your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million. To put it in perspective, statistics show you are about three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike.

Why do we want Jared to be mentally ill? Why are we waiting so eagerly to hear the words, “Jared Lee Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic?”

Because we’ll feel so relieved if he’s “different” somehow. Because then we can say, “Oh, it’s because of that,” and close the book.

Because we want “him” not to be “us.”