As a TiER1er, I’m honored to contribute to the discussion about mental health. For me, it starts with awareness. I work in an organization that actually talks about mental health and its importance. That’s a critical first step that leads to awareness and, more importantly, action.
My awareness of mental health started through volunteer work I do with Medical Volunteers of Cincinnati, which provides medical foot care, foot washing, and shoes for the working poor and homeless in the Greater Cincinnati region. I see some of the worst-case scenarios that involve mental health or substance abuse. It’s humbling.
More than one-fifth of people who are homeless suffer from a severe mental illness. It can be a devastating problem for those affected, as their mental state deteriorates due to lack of treatment and help. Homelessness is also an expensive problem for the country. USA Today estimates that the United States will spend $5 billion on programs for the homeless population this year alone (and the figure rises to $5.7 billion for 2018).
Let me share a recent story that occurred while volunteering with Medical Volunteers of Cincinnati earlier this year. Experiences like this have helped me become more aware of the impact of mental health and homelessness. I hope that, by sharing my perspective, it can help you, too.
It’s a cold January night in Cincinnati, flurrying outside, and I’m standing in the basement of the Barron Center for Men. The space is packed and bustling with people flowing into the basement looking to claim a spot for the night to escape the cold. We’ve set up a dozen stations, all full of clients whose feet will be bathed in warm soapy water, dried, groomed, and softly massaged with lotion and powder. In addition to foot care, each client will receive a new pair of socks and shoes before they leave the mobile clinic.
I’m waiting for a station to open up, so I can quickly change out the dirty water and refresh the towels, when I hear, “Sir,” and some mumbling in a sheepish voice. I turn around to see a young man around 20 years old, trying to catch my attention. He looks tired and has a stressed look on his thin face. I reply, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. Can I help you?”
“Uh, yeah. Can I have a woman work on my feet?” He continues: “I was abused by my old man and I don’t feel comfortable with anyone working on my feet, unless it’s a woman. Do you know what I mean?”
I simply reply, “I understand and we can do that, no problem.”
A little later, after receiving foot care at a grooming station, the same young man—Eric—came up to me. We chatted about the Cincinnati Crosstown Shootout game going on that night between Cincinnati and Xavier. Eric shared a few other things about his day. He said he was really tired, because the night before a couple argued all night and he couldn’t sleep. (He had stayed in an open room lined with cots.) Eric also told me about his plans to head to Colorado this spring where there was a job he might be able to get.
He just wanted someone to talk to for a few minutes.
At the homeless shelter, you see many different faces and each one has a story. Often they check in quietly at the foot clinic and are a bit apprehensive before sitting down at one of the stations. Quickly the volunteers try to make a connection. We ask their name and a few questions about their feet and if they have any problems, like diabetes or pain of any kind.
After a few questions, most of the time you’ll hear just a little bit about their kids, or they’ll talk sports or touch on something going on in the news. What is striking to me are the unique personalities and the reasons they end up at this point in their life. When I see someone on the street holding a sign that reads I’m homeless, I often think about the conversations and the personalities of the homeless people at the shelter, like Eric.
Eric is not alone in being a young man and homeless. A recent report from the U.S. Depart of Housing and Urban Development found that there’s been an increase in homeless among young adults aged 30 or under. The report shared that “the increase in homeless in the young adult population could be associated with cutbacks in mental health agencies. Young people who previously would have been stabilized by mental health agencies after turning 18 were now becoming homeless.”
Why I take action.
I have a radical belief: If every person and organization looked for a way to make a difference, then we will make a difference.
That cold night in January made a difference to the 48 people we served that night. We gave them new socks and shoes and we washed their feet. We also chatted with them, encouraged them, and treated them like individuals. I’ll bet it was the highlight of that particular day for them. Many people I’ve helped want to reclaim their lives; they just need a little support to get started.
I encourage everyone to go beyond awareness and talking about these issues, and to take action of some sort. Find a way to contribute and positively impact those affected by mental health or substance abuse issues, particularly those who can’t help themselves. If we all do that, it’s my wholehearted belief that we’ll look up and see that the sum total of our efforts will have made a big difference.
Also, if you’re in the Cincinnati region, check out Medical Volunteers of Cincinnati. I would love to see you there.
Want to turn mental health awareness into action at your organization? Let’s talk! Give us a call at (859) 415-1000 or drop us a line in the form at the bottom of this page.