Opinion: Housing offers the mentally ill a new chance

The biggest tragedy with schizophrenia is that four in 10 people with the illness will attempt suicide, and one in 10 will eventually succeed.

Edmonton Journal 4 minute read November 16, 2021

A homeless man sits in an inner city back alley in Edmonton. File photo. John Lucas / Postmedia

Schizophrenia is an illness that affects one in every 100 people. Do you know 300 people, in work and play? Most likely, three of them are going through hell right now. Imagine with that figure, around 40,000 Albertans currently suffer. The main factor of schizophrenia is psychosis. While not a personality split in two or more, psychosis is a split from a person’s grasp on reality.

In my own personal experience with psychosis, I most often experience four things: Being more suggestible to even grandiose ideas; false beliefs in my mind known as delusions; false input from my senses (hallucinations) that support the delusions; differing levels of paranoia that cause a sense of being persecuted or followed.

Despite how people with schizophrenia appear on TV and many media sources, violence is no more common among sufferers than it is among the general public. The Schizophrenia Society of Alberta affirms this and goes one step further to say people with the illness are more likely to be victims of violence — also true in my experience. When you walk around and you think God just gave you the secrets of the universe and you will live forever, people fear you and act out against you.

When the news media reported on the horrible situation of a man being beheaded on a bus, they pointed out Vince Li, the perpetrator, had schizophrenia. They did not point out his repeated attempts to get medication and help for his illness but being repeatedly turned away right before the tragedy happened.

The biggest tragedy with schizophrenia is that four in 10 people with the illness will attempt suicide, and one in 10 will eventually succeed. The damage suicide causes can devastate the lives of every person left behind. At 17, a close friend died in this way. This sent my life into a downward spiral and eventually, a severe psychotic episode that required hospitalization.

After leaving the hospital, I thought I might fare better in Vancouver. The big problem was that I brought my malfunctioning brain with me when I did. I ended up getting ill again and decided to come back to Edmonton and accept treatment.

I have asked psychiatrists and other mental health workers what they feel is the most important thing to a psychiatric patient, and they almost always say housing. Without housing, with no stability, nowhere to get access to proper medications, it is extremely difficult to help someone with a mental illness. When I came home from the coast, I had to live in a shelter in the inner city, which was a humiliating experience.

It is a sad thing that so many people with schizophrenia die by suicide. Most of them are simply too depressed and lonely to go on. In my work we try to reach out to people in this situation over the phone, which can be extremely rewarding. Others may be experiencing severe psychosis and severe medication side effects. The big thing to remember is that these people need love, friendship and acceptance in the community just like anyone else.

But what is the solution to the huge problem of schizophrenia? How can we help 40,000 Albertans? I think one of the first things to do is to get in touch with your local schizophrenia society. If you can afford to, donate. If you can’t, volunteer. If you can’t volunteer, then you can do one of the most critical things that we desperately need more people to do, you can be an ally of mental health and try to increase awareness and reduce the horrible stigma surrounding mental illness.

The Schizophrenia Society of Alberta, of which I am a member and employee, has interesting information about their clients. They run three housing facilities, one in Edmonton and two in Red Deer. They have found the cost of housing, supervising and feeding someone with schizophrenia is approximately $70 per day per bed. The psychiatric hospital would be lucky to manage $400 per day per bed. Housing not only makes financial sense, it would give a generation of mental health survivors a whole new chance.

Leif Gregersen lives in the McCauley area. He has written and published 12 books, three of which are memoirs of his lived experience with mental illness. His time is divided among teaching, giving mental health presentations, and writing.