A 2010 study published by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association found that in the United States, those with severe mental illnesses are “three times more likely to be in jail or prison than in a psychiatric hospital” and that “40 percent of individuals with serious mental illnesses have been in jail or prison at some time in their lives.”
This heightened risk of incarceration is just one of the indicators that those with serious mental illnesses are among the most vulnerable members of our communities. Tremendous isolation is also a routine experience for the mentally ill, who are often more regarded as projects to be solved than as people with inherent dignity and worth.
“If societies are judged by how they treat their most disabled members,” says Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist who contributed to the study, “our society will be judged harshly indeed.”
Deborah Geesling, the president of P82 Project Restoration, has decided to do something about it. Based in the East Valley, the organization has set out to build a home where those who suffer from serious mental illness can receive the support and personalized treatment they need over the long term in a context of dignity and care. Here is our recent interview.
Flourish Phoenix: I know that mental health has become a personal issue for you, not some abstract cause. Could you tell us what led you to start P82 Project Restoration?
Deborah Geesling: My husband and I have four sons. Our third son has a very serious mental illness. Our entire family has been impacted as we watched this unyielding brain disease develop and the ensuing suffering our son has endured. He also lacks insight into his illness, a condition known as anosognosia, which makes it even more difficult to obtain the appropriate treatment, care, and support.
Through advocating for our son for almost 10 years now, our eyes have been opened to the realities of our horribly broken mental illness treatment system and to a world of suffering we never imagined existed right here in our own state. We know we are going to have to help our son, most likely for the rest of our lives . . . so why not spend those years helping others too?
FP: A variety of clinics and hospitals in metro Phoenix offer care for those suffering from mental illness, and the Arizona Department of Behavioral Health Services is dedicated to these needs as well. But you started this nonprofit because you saw there was a gap in services available.
DG: Hands down, long term housing is the biggest need. In 1999 the Supreme Court ruled in the Olmstead Decision that persons with disabilities should receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. While well intentioned and necessary for many who can live independently, our government has been overzealous in the enforcement of this ruling. This has left the most seriously disabled at risk for homelessness, incarceration, and even death in an effort to move them prematurely to independence without honest consideration of an individual’s “appropriate” needs.
There are many severely and persistently mentally ill people who need longer term care, and yet there is little to none available. Prisons and homeless shelters now provide the bulk of housing for our most vulnerable neighbors. According to Treatment Advocacy Center, there are 10 times more seriously mentally ill persons in prisons than in our state hospitals in Arizona.
Our state has adopted what is known as the “Recovery Model” of care. Again, well intentioned and appropriate for many individuals, yet the small percentage of people with severe and persistent mental illness often need more time to recover – if recovery is even possible at all. We have to begin to be honest about this. We have to find a better way to provide appropriate housing and support for those most in need.
FP: This project is deeply rooted in your faith. How does your faith give shape to the care you provide?
DG: It’s everything to us. In light of the mercy we have received through the saving work of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection, how can we not care for those who are near and dear to his heart: the least of these?
The gospel is the greatest news to mankind, this great God who has no need, became like us to rescue weak sinners. I mean, how can we take this unmerited gift and not turn around and help those who need us most? Men made in the image of God, men who he has awakened our eyes to see, because he sees them.
Psalm 82 tell us, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
As Christians, this is what we are called to do.
FP: What does restoration look like for a person with severe and persistent mental illness? And what does restoration look like for a broader community that often prefers to look the other way?
DG: For the person with severe and persistent mental illness, restoration has to be the best possible quality of life that individual can attain. Reaching that level involves input and help from family members, doctors, case management, staff and/or counselors. Restoration is a difficult and weighty outcome to ascertain and should not be taken lightly or written flippantly into a government policy. However, restoration is what we hope to achieve. Why not aspire to help a person achieve it in a caring, safe, and dignified home? And why not allow individuals to take as much time as they need?
For the broader community, restoration is about rebuilding trust with our neighbors who need us the most. In many aspects we have been asleep, assuming that the government was fully taking up the mantle. We, as individuals, have neglected one of our greatest responsibilities: to protect the weak. It’s time to restore that obligation.
To learn more about P82 Project Restoration, visit p82homes.org.
Photo via Mopho.to