Fear distorts perceptions and perceptions affect attitudes and behaviors. For example, the chronic mental illnesses, such as Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia, conjure up images of people who are violent, drug abusing and criminal. Attempts to build residences house them often provoke local citizens to protest, “not in my neighborhood.” This is currently what is happening in a pleasant neighborhood in a part of southwest Florida.
In this particular case a building, previously been used as a shelter for young mothers, closed and was leased to a company that uses such sites as group residences for the mentally ill.
This company is known for serving the mentally ill around the larger area of southwest Florida. They have available different levels of residential living depending that are based on the skills and abilities of residents. Every potential resident must meet strict criteria prior to admission.
In situations where a mentally ill person is so disabled that they need lots of support, there are assisted living residences with 24 hour care and supervision.
For those who are deemed capable of living more independently group residences are available. Admission to one of these depends upon meeting several criteria. Potential residents must pass a background check, be under the care of a psychiatrist, compliant with medication, and able to meet all of the daily self care chores such as showering, dressing, cooking and able to cooperate with others in the home and in the community. Also, people must prove that they are free of drugs and pass urine tests if they have a history of abuse. Finally, each resident has a case manager who helps to residents advocate for themselves while also seeing to it that they see their doctors and remain compliant with medications.
Despite all of this, community members are fighting to have the residence in this particular neighborhood removed because, in their words, residents “might self medicate (abuse drugs), wander the streets at night, leer at teenage girls, kidnap, rape or murder children, steal property from neighbors, and toss beer cans onto lawns.”
While it is easy to blame neighborhood people for having these attitudes, it really the fault of the county, who owns and leases the property, for not educating people about the new residential center, how it will be used and the nature of the clients or renters coming into the area.
Having spent many years working in psychiatric day hospital settings and cooperating with residential centers that house the patients, I can report that these fears are unfounded. The mentally ill are no more violent than the rest of the population and are, in all probability, less violent. All of the fears stated by neighbors about they fear could happen are uninformed and uneducated about the mentally ill. [Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states of Colorado (#127) and New York (#R039535)]