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.