I have been diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses over the years: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depersonalization disorder. These illnesses first manifested during my sophomore year of college, and I was fortunate to have a compassionate family, health insurance, and a good support system which allowed me to seek (and afford) treatment. I went regularly to a psychologist for about seven years, and have had a few different psychiatrists, who prescribed medications, some of which I take today.
Before I experienced mental illness, I did not understand it. It was something I associated with "crazy" people I'd seen in movies and on television, "psychos" and those unfit for society. What I've since come to understand is that mental illness is rather common and is treatable. I am a testament to this fact.
With treatment and medication, I was able to graduate from college, earn my Master's degree, and now I teach college and own an art gallery (plus lots of other random projects).
My experience with mental illness has given me great compassion for others who suffer as I did (and sometimes still do), in ways that are invisible to most people. If you have a broken leg, or a physical wound, people can look at you and see your condition. But if you suffer from depression, or anxiety, or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, these pains are harder to see.
I think society has come a long way in its understanding of mental illness, but we still have a ways to go. For example, most people would feel no hesitation in telling a co-worker "I have the flu today." However, most people would be less likely to tell a co-worker, "I'm having panic attacks today" or "I'm having thoughts of suicide today." My point is that there still exists today a certain shame and fear surrounding mental illness.
As I said before, I'm a very lucky man to have had family, friends, and health insurance which allowed me to receive treatment. But there are many others who do not have the resources I had. Some of these people are homeless. Without my support system and health insurance, I could very well be homeless too.
Obviously, not all homeless people are mentally ill. There are a wide variety of reasons for homelessness. But one of those reasons is mental illness. I think, as a society, we ought to seek understanding, compassion, and ways to help those who do not have the resources I had. Steps are being taken in this direction in my community of Fullerton, and in Orange County, and I hope to be a part of this conversation and these steps.
Fear, shame, and neglect are not the answer. As I've learned on my journey, understanding, patience, and love are the answer.