Messy walls and broken minds

I’ve thought a lot about how to, or even whether to, write this post. On one hand I feel that I’m entitled to share it with you as it’s something that’s happened to me, but the reality is that I’m just an incidental bit player in someone else’s story. However, maybe I have just enough insight to walk the line and open your eyes to something we don’t see every day and certainly don’t go out of our way to confront; severe mental illness.

Mrsdave and I bought a modest two bedroom unit in Albury shortly after we were married, and lived there for around three and a half years. Luckily for us, when the time came to get a bigger home we were able to retain the unit as an investment property and join the ranks of tax cheating negative gearing junkies. When we first rented it out we were amazingly cautious as it still felt a little like home, so we did all the right things, took out all of the proper insurance, and handed the place over to an agent to find us a tenant. All went well, and a year later my younger sister started renting the property from us, so we rejoiced in our good fortune and canceled all of our insurance. When my sister moved out and we put the unit back on the open market I’m sure that the idea of getting insurance again crossed our minds, but being first class procrastinators it never happened.

A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from our agent, she sounded rather shaken up and said that she had some bad news about the unit. The tone of her voice made it obvious that she wasn’t just calling to say we’d lost a tenant and my mind raced through all of the possible scenarios which could have occurred. She’d had to go to the unit to let the tenant’s mother and the police in as the door was locked and they couldn’t get in, at this point I was thinking ‘corpse’. As it turned out the young man hadn’t passed away, but he had suffered from a fairly catastrophic breakdown or as I believe it’s sometimes referred to in medical circles ‘completely lost his shit’.

There was graffiti, food smeared on the walls, holes in the carpet and even stuff on the ceiling. The  kitchen  was absolutely filthy and there seemed to be barely any surface untainted. According to his mother the young man believed that either was, or was possessed by, Satan. He’s presently doing a stint in a psych ward. What added to the shock was the fact that the agent had actually inspected the place in March and found it in excellent condition, so in less than three months this guy had gone from ideal tenant to a state of disturbance where he decided to emulate the 80’s commercial where Pro Hart uses his carpet as a canvas.

Mrsdave and I are probably going to be out of pocket around three thousand dollars, which really isn’t money that we have to spare, but I just can’t get past the thought that in the greater scheme of things we’re not really suffering that much. How can you be angry with someone who has had their life torn away from them? This kid is unlikely to be able to return to his job, he’s not presently capable of living independently and there’s no doubt that this episode will be a blight on his life for years to come, how do we as a community help people in these circumstances?

There’s a lot of effort that’s been put into raising awareness about mental illness, and we’ve come a long way in dealing with it in our community, but these type of profound episodes are still incredibly challenging. Once you’ve taken care of the immediate needs of someone suffering from a severe mental illness the next questions that need to be addressed are ‘how did this happen’ and ‘what could have been done to prevent, or at least reduce the impact of, this event’.

The first question is hard enough to piece together, the patient isn’t often able to contribute much and those around them are often in a bit of shock, but the second is even more difficult to address. As I mentioned, less than three months ago there were no outward signs of this event obvious to the estate agent and although they’re obviously not trained mental health workers, they can at least spot a messy house and late rent cheques, neither of which they found. It’s also not uncommon for people dealing with mental health problems to try to cover them up rather than share them with the people around them, how often after a suicide do we hear the story that friends had no idea the person was even a little sad, let alone suicidal?

The other issue, of course, is how do we help these people move back into the community when they have begun to recover? We’ve been advised that we need to go to the tenancy tribunal to terminate the lease before we can apply to get the bond to help offset our costs, which will effectively leave this young guy with a permanent black mark against him if he tries to rent in the future. So the system has placed another obstacle in front of a vulnerable young man before he’s even left the hospital. There are incredibly strong correlations between mental illness, drug dependence and homelessness, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out why. I’m glad to know that this young man has family here to support him, but I wonder what would have happened if this young man did not have people here to look out for him, and what would become of him afterwards if he didn’t have a family home to return to?

I don’t have any answers, but I do know that we need to make sure that in the aftermath of events like this there is better support for the sufferers of mental illness. The society that we live in should not place barriers to recovery in front of people like our former tenant, a single event should not be allowed to hamper the rest of their lives. It takes more than money to fix these things, although building more crisis accommodation would be a welcome start, it takes the will of those in power and understanding and compassion from the community. It’s the least that we can do.


17 thoughts on “Messy walls and broken minds

  1. yeah it’s confronting to have it dumped in your lap like that, I guess the main thing that stands out for me is the appaling lack of mental health facilities in Albury, where is the crisis assesment team? Where is the callout team for people in dire mental states (as this guy obviously was/ is).
    Our mental health facilities here are extremely lacklustre, really really poor.

    Nolan House is a really bad environment, thanks in large part to a few staff members who aren’t fit to look after livestock, much less people in frail states of mind.
    It’s a shame, because it really detracts from the efforts of the other people there who are committed to providing a quality health service, and there are a good deal more of them.
    Since they constructed the wall around the perimeter, (at the insistance of the NSW state government) it looks more like East Berlin on a grey day than a place to provide sanctuary and convalescence for people in need of respite.

    The mental health telephone triage, the “accessline” is quite hopeless too, they refer people in dire straights to the accident and emergency department of the base hospital, a gruelling experience for someone not coping if ever there was one, or refer them to community mental health, most often it is weeks until an appointment is available.
    Obviously inadequate.

    In order to get a case worker, a person really needs to be virtually at the point where they are eating their own faeces, and as for ongoing support, well it’s simply not available.

    It’s consoling to know that the pain in your hip pocket is matched by a twinge in your heart for the welfare of your tennant, many landlords care about their bottom line and nothing else.
    I can’t help but wonder if an adequate mental health service for the region might have averted a financial cost to you in this instance, and a greater cost in human misery for the young man involved.

    Let’s hope you aren’t forced into a situation whereby you are obliged to bring about criminal proceedings against him in order to obtain remuneration from your insurance company.

  2. We don’t have any insurance AWOL. Mrsdave and I could do without the bills, but beyond taking the absolutely necessary steps to get the bond released to us we won’t be taking any further action. If the tenant or his family can contribute to the costs, great, but this is no time to be punitive. Besides which, the Australian taxpayer will end up subsidising the cost of repairs anyway.

  3. Dave, if absolutely necissary you could take out a civil claim without saddling the poor guy with a criminal record to add to his woes.

    I think it’s actually smart to go without insurance, there’s no guarantee the bastards will pay up even when you make a claim.

    The better way to go is to put the money you WOULD have paid in insurance premiums into an interst bearing account and effectively self insure.

    My dad was in a really horrible accident a couple of years ago and his insurance company wiped him like a dirty rag, I will never again trust an insurance company, they are crooks plain and simple.

  4. Great post, Dave. I’m sorry to hear about the couple of grand you’ll be out of pocket but good on you for asking those really relevant and thought-provoking questions. We should be thinking more about them as a society.

  5. Not a nice experience for you and MrsDave but it’s not so much an insight into mental illness as a glimpse – like seeing the tip of the iceberg.

    As someone who has a close family member with schizophrenia (for nearly 15 years) I can assure you the only way the person can get back to having any kind of stable existance is with the support of family AND when the person finally understands the illness themself and acknowledges they have it and that they MUST take their medication (this is actually called “insight” in medical terms).

    It takes many years to reach some kind of stability – in my family member’s case more than a decade. Even then there’ll be relapses from time to time, usually when the Mental Health authorities take the “in” away from the voluntary medication program and leaves it up to the individual to monitor their intake of anti-psychotics.

    In my opinion there are some patients (like my relative) who should NEVER be taken off the involuntary list. Maybe that’s what happened in your tenant’s case. First time psychotic episodes are not usually as severe as the one you describe and he sounds like a longer term sufferer.

    As for what others can do – well it might help if there were more Government funding and more housing. It’s a shit of a problem and one that won’t be resolved quickly because ‘crazy people’ do not get the same public sympathy as other disabled people (because they are generally ‘not nice’ and do things like your tenant did).

    Btw, wouldn’t your building insurance be covered by the body corporate’s policy? And wouldn’t damage to walls and fittings be part of the building? Might be worth checking that out. You’ll need a police report but that doesn’t mean he would be charged. That depends on you.

  6. Thank you for your compassion. Too often folks who have suffered as a result of the symptoms of the mental illness blame the person. There is so little understanding; and so few who want to understand. It’s a hilly road we travel with our loved ones – ups and downs.

  7. Agree with family4family DfA. Despite the swipes I like to take at you, I know you and MrsDave for compassionate people. I’m glad you’ve found a sensitive way to reflect this compassion in a public forum, as an example for those of us who have never had to deal with someone else who has needed help.
    I know where you’re at. Come up to The Berra for a free meal anytime, if it helps you cover your costs. Or for anything else, just ask. It’s the least I can do for you, now you’ve done what you can.

  8. I don’t mean to be critical of your good intentions Dave but the reality is it really would make no difference to this young person’s ‘life’ if you proceeded to the Tribunal to recover the bond money. In fact it might help him because if he gets it back what do you think he might spend it on? Drugs. One of the main problems in my opinion is that there is no administrative control taken over the disability and/or unemployment benefits that severely affected mental health patients receive and they usually spend it on obtaining even harder drugs than the ganja that (in a large if not majority of cases) triggered the problem in the first place. And that makes it worse and triggers more episodes. Breaking the cycle doesn’t seem to figure in the Mental Health programs.

  9. I will be trying to recover the bond money Ray, but I don’t intend to pursue it any further. The young guy has no earning potential anyway, so from my perspective it’s not worth chasing and I don’t want to end up hampering his recovery when/if he begins to improve.

    As to whether or not he was a drug user, that’s just speculation. When I had a look at the place one of the first things I did was smell the curtains in all of the rooms as that’s usually a dead give away if someone’s been smoking dope, but they were, strangely enough, the only clean thing in the entire unit.

  10. Well you’re right Dave, I’m speculating about the drugs. It’s just that drug use and mental illness goes hand in hand, in most cases. He might be an exception but the stuff on the walls seems to suggest drugs. Any needles? They move on to heroin, mainly. Any luck with the B/Corp?

  11. The cleaners didn’t mention finding any bongs, needles or any other drug paraphernalia. The thing is, even if it was drug induced, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a young man in need of help.

  12. As everyone has said Dave, your compassion is admirable and I wish there were more people like you (a lot more). Unfortunately yours is a view that is very, very much in the minority and there are good reasons why most people not directly affected by someone’s mental illness are not as sympatheic as you are.

    I can’t begin to tell you though what it’s really like to have someone close to you go full blown schizophrenic. In the end you have to actually disconnect your feelings and just do what is bluntly right for the person, even if it means denying them things. As I said, it’s hard to explain.

  13. Btw, I wasn’t suggesting you pursue him beyond the bond money. There would probably be no point in doing that because, as you point out, no court could make him pay. But it’s unlikely that having civil action or even police charges against him would hamper his recovery. Those things are minor compared to what he’s going though and, if he’s typical, he wouldn’t care about that. You see, self estem is non-existent in severe cases, and it CANNOT be reinstated.

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