Sometimes Change Doesn’t Come Quickly

By Sue Abderholden
Executive Director

I sat in my office today looking through the scrapbook of one of NAMI’s founders – Dorothy Holmes. An amazing woman who over 40 years ago joined with other families to speak out against the plight of people with mental illnesses. She advocated at the county, state and national level for community services and funding. She wasn’t afraid to share her story and to call elected officials.

In one letter to the editor she wrote: “There are 15,000 people on the streets of Minnesota, out of the hospital, living in “Mental Health ghettos” or worse because the hospitals are saying – your Medical Assistance has run out – so you must leave and we have no follow up programs to help you.” In that same letter she talked about people who were former “mental hospital” patients who were now working and functioning in society. She knew community services worked – we just needed to fund them.

This weekend a friend posted on her Facebook page a picture of many tents lining the Greenway in Minneapolis. Tents occupied by people who are homeless. We know from the research that roughly 60% of people who are homeless live with a mental illness. There are about 5,000 adults without children who are homeless, 10,000 if we include everyone.

While we have made progress – both in terms of changing public attitudes and building the framework for a mental health system – it is clear we have a long way to go. People with mental illnesses are still homeless, living on the streets. People are boarding in the ERs waiting for a hospital bed or are ending up in jail. People with mental illnesses are discharged from an inpatient psychiatric unit to the streets. People cannot access the care they need because insurance won’t pay for it or the insurance company “decides” that it’s not medically necessary. Families are still pushed away when they are often the safety net. Services are underfunded, even when we know that they work.

As Dorothy wrote 42 years ago, people can recover and work and be a part of their community – but only if we provide treatment, services, and supports. Near the end of Dorothy’s life, when she could no longer go to meetings she said “we have to depend on this generation to stay with it and get busy” and that’s what we all need to do. As new people are elected this week on the local, county, state and national level get busy and reach out and share with them your story and what needs to be done to finish building our mental health system. We must pick up the torch from our founders and continue this fight.