By Pat Morgan
In 1983, I answered the call from my church’s priest, whose compassion for homeless people and his work to help them in Memphis (and nationally) defies description. The scene when I walked into Calvary Episcopal Church’s elegant “great hall,” was stunning, but not because of the massive chandelier or the red velvet drapes at the windows. Seated in the solid oak chairs along the wall were about a dozen ragged, forlorn, and sickly men. I had been a real estate broker, banker, and elected official in the county government previously. So, not much prepared me for the hardship and illnesses I was about to encounter.
I’d seen a lot of poverty in my life, lived some of it when I was a child, and worked to help end some of it as an adult. I knew more than I’d ever wanted to know about addiction, having learned some of the most important parts (too little and too late) at Al Anon. I knew a little about brain illness, commonly referred to as mental illness, and nothing at all about the mental health system. Although nothing works to end homelessness without housing, it became painfully clear to me that homelessness is about a LOT more than the lack of affordable housing. Serious brain illness can contribute to homelessness. When people are unable to meet ordinary demands of life and cannot attend to their basic biological needs due to illness, loss of housing can ensue.
For the next five years, I spent almost every weekday afternoon talking with, and later assessing, the needs of our visitors while helping to develop, and then directing, always as a volunteer, Calvary’s “Street Ministry.” During those years, hundreds of people, primarily men, walked, staggered, stormed, slipped, or were so intoxicated or psychotic that they half-floated through our doors and into our hearts. At least a third were mentally ill and more than a few were actively psychotic. We listened, learned, provided vouchers for shelter, personal needs, bus tickets, or prescriptions when there were no other sources. While I cared deeply about all of them, a few, usually those who were clearly mentally ill, stole my heart and then broke it, and would finally send me on a decades-long battle to secure for them the inpatient treatment they desperately needed. They didn't necessarily want it, and rarely, if ever, received it.
The director of the state's acute care mental hospital in Memphis had finally tired of my impassioned (or desperate, heartfelt, consistent) appeals, and told me what I didn't want to hear. "Pat,” he said, “You know they’re committable and I know they’re committable, but I can't say it, because if I were to commit them, the stark reality is I simply don't have enough beds.” He wasn’t just talking about furniture. He needed staff.
I needed to know why he couldn’t get what he needed. It would take decades, but along the way I’d learn about why our mental health system, locally, statewide, and nationally, was so broken. Thankfully, two of Memphis’ mental health centers began sending us crisis specialists to help our visitors, who’d acknowledge that they were suicidal or homicidal, get the three-day inpatient treatment they desperately needed in the new crisis unit, with follow-up services. They were remarkable, and I learned a lot, but not enough.
When Alepeachie, my all-time-favorite homeless person and only "success story" was found dead in the apartment the crisis specialists had found for him, I “lost it.” Alepeachie had slept in a series of cardboard boxes near a downtown church for years and it had taken months (and a lot of KFC) for me to gain his trust, which was easily transferred to the crisis specialists. I'd seen him a few days before and he'd looked good, but when I asked him how he was doing, he'd said "I don't hear the voices telling me to kill myself anymore, but my life is so empty I still want to kill myself." I’d meant to call the crisis specialists but had simply forgotten by the time I got home. This was before smartphones had been invented.
Devastated at his funeral, I vowed that I’d never stop trying to help people with serious brain illnesses. That promise would lead me back to college (at age 48) and then on to Washington, D.C., for a semester in American Politics. My new career path led to a presidential appointment as a program specialist in the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Returning to Memphis some years later, I continued working on homelessness, with a special focus on those with serious brain illnesses.
I am now retired, but remain a passionate and dedicated advocate for people with serious brain disorders who captured my heart so many years ago. And I vow to continue for as long as I am able. I am honored to serve as an advisor and advocate for the National Shattering Silence Coalition.
Pat Morgan has worked to help homeless people, especially those with serious brain disorders (SBD), commonly referred to as serious mental illnesses (SMI), for decades. Her experience includes serving for five years as the unpaid director of a church-based "Street Ministry" to homeless people, seven years as a presidential appointee to the staff of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during the Clinton Administration, and ten years as the director of Partners for the Homeless in Memphis, TN. Upon her retirement, her volunteer work focused on homeless people with SBD through the Room in the Inn program in Memphis. She is the author of two books, “The Concrete Killing Fields,” and “We Hardly Knew Them, How Homeless Mentally Ill People Became Collateral Damage.” A relentless advocate, both books include multiple stories about her work with homeless people suffering from SBD and call for major changes in our mental healthcare system to meet their needs.
By Nancy Boucher
I have always had an interest in the wilderness of the mind. I’m no stranger to serious brain disorders, commonly referred to as serious mental illnesses. Both my maternal grandmother and my uncle died with diagnoses of serious brain disorders in state hospitals.
I also grew up with two older siblings with diagnoses of serious brain disorders. My older brother gravitated especially towards me when he was having intense symptoms, weaving me into his delusions. And at an early age, my mom sought out my help in supporting both. She even offered me money to counsel my sister Theresa. I often lent my support to my siblings and my mom. The support took many forms.
During the early years of our marriage, my husband and I started a business called Nancy's Fruits and Veggies. One day I took Theresa to work with me. Before we got out of the car, she told me as she was looking into the rear-view mirror that she had four eyes. I naively tried logic, to no avail. After about a half hour of hanging out with me at the stand, Theresa said she had to leave, and off she went! I was alone and responsible for keeping our fledgling veggie and fruit stand open. This was not during the time of cell phones, so it was only after a full day of work that I learned my sister had made her way home. She traveled about four miles, but only after stopping at a stranger’s and asking if she could take a shower.
Over the years, and thankfully, my sister’s illness eventually stabilized with medication. Theresa had a gifted, kind-hearted, and brilliant psychiatrist who always took time to see her.
After our parents passed, Theresa lived in the family home alone—a tiny bungalow where my seven sisters and I had slept four to a bed. My sister was everlastingly committed to family. She cared about and welcomed everyone in our family, even those who had serious issues, into her home. She never excluded or abandoned anyone in need.
Theresa had a heart of gold. The way she lived her daily life exemplified compassion and acceptance. I was the student, and she was the teacher. Simply knowing her helped me immensely in my profession as a behavioral specialist in special education classrooms. Theresa taught me that I had to see each of them to reach them, and I had to reach each of them to teach them. I learned, too, that the richest resource for me in helping them were their family members. So, I reached out to meet with them, seeking their knowledge, experience, and insight. It was an incredibly rewarding job.
I learned that a unifying concern for families was the impact of this child on their other children. So I started a sibling support group that was powerful for all involved. We always began our group meetings by having the siblings put their dominant hand behind their back and work together to pass a package of lifesavers to share with each other. This simple activity demonstrated a lot.
In my immediate family it took me so long to see the heartbreaking impact of serious brain disorder on my son, Clem—my beautiful, sensitive, charming. smart, capable boy.
I kept trying to guide and teach him like I had always done alongside his brother. Once they were in high school and were going out at night, I always said the same thing to them—be safe and be kind.
About eight years into Clem’s illness, when I made a request of him, he said, “Mom, it’s like you are asking a 2-year-old to go grocery shopping for the family.” Even then, he was educating me about the impact of his serious brain disorder. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was the teacher and I was the student once again.
Over the years, there have been many times when his dad and I have set out with good intention to try to teach Clem good habits to keep his body and spirit healthy.
For example, COVID has been especially challenging for Clem. He’s been isolating, going deeper into his mind. And he’s smoking more. More specifically, he’s smoking half of a cigarette, then squishing it out. We are buying more cartons and spending a lot more money each week, trying to keep him supplied with that de-stressor.
His dad tried to set up a new system for Clem. He gave an ashtray with sand to him, where he could snuff out the cigarettes gently and then smoke them all the way down before lighting another. It didn’t work.
Then I remembered to watch the student and follow his lead. Our efforts, advice and attention to the issue were creating more pressure on him.
To even begin to understand, I imagine that I am bed-bound from a catastrophic illness. It has bruised my brain and changed what I can do. I must leave behind what I once loved doing, and what defined an essential part of who I once was.
These are the lessons that have been given to me from the wilderness of the mind. Stand beside loved ones with no judgment. Support them with patience and compassion. And love without measure. I thank my family for these gifts.
“We need more people to go public with this humanitarian crisis of not treating people with serious brain illnesses and not paying for them to be housed in the best level of care where they can be the healthiest and most stable. We need to care. We need to act, no matter how terrifying it might be to bring this information forward.”
These inspiring words of tireless activist Leslie Carpenter from a recent Facebook post remind us all how important this battle is for those who are suffering and the family members who care for them.
Help is on the way. National Shattering Silence Coalition is gearing up at this very moment to shine the most brilliant light on this humanitarian crisis you have ever seen. With the help of Accelerating Social Good and mental health activist/consultant Kerry Martin, NSSC is poised to harness the power of our collective voices. It’s time to finally Shatter the Silence and bring hope, compassion, and treatment to those who have been abandoned for so long. Stay tuned…
Leslie’s original post:
Sometimes in the life of being a very public serious brain illness advocate, I have people reach out to me for suggestions for loved ones, resources, etc. I try to respond to all of them and at least make an effort to reach them, give them all of my contact information, and let them get back into contact with me. Not all do, but when they do, I try to listen with a caring heart and share information that might be helpful.
Recently, I was asked to meet with someone who has worked within the system who wanted to share information with me of several cases and system failures they felt I needed to know since I work at the local, state and federal level to improve mental health care.
I just left that 2.5 hour meeting feeling filled up with the poison of knowledge of so many cases with adverse outcomes, due to not just gaps in the system, but active choices of key people in the system.
I have known there were problems, gaps, and challenges. I now know some of the people who specifically have caused harm, and my soul is feeling overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment.
I need to move forward with solving some of this mess, and I will. But for now, I am sitting in a random parking lot crying and processing and figuring out the best next steps.
For now, let me say this:
We need more people to go public with this humanitarian crisis of not treating people with serious brain illnesses and not paying for them to be housed in the best level of care where they can be the healthiest and most stable.
We need to care. We need to act, no matter how terrifying it might be to bring this information forward. #WeCanDoSoMuchBetterThanThis
#CostOfNotCaring #ShatteringSilence4SBD #Not1MoreTragedy
Please join NSSC today.