Can the Mental Illness-Poverty Chain be Broken?

There many influences in a child’s personal, family, social, and cultural environment and development that may lead to mental illness, such as exposure to violence, family instability, or poverty, which often stretch into adulthood and result in a pattern of substance abuse, incarceration, homelessness, and consequently, joblessness. Yet many employers and the public turn a blind eye when it comes to the mentally ill. According to USA Today, 80 percent of people with mental illness are unemployed, and of those, 60 percent want to work.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that neglect of mental illness issues costs the nation $444 billion a year in lost earnings and federal disability payments. NIMH says that 44 percent of individuals receiving federal disability income are mentally ill.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) NAMI has asserted Medicaid and its expansion play a crucial role in mental health service financing and delivery as well as in offering coverage to an estimated 2.7 million uninsured people affected by mental illness; however, disability payments and federal health insurance programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, can force some people with mental illness to choose poverty because they may lose these payments if they begin working. It is a vicious cycle that seems to have no end and hardly any solutions.

Perhaps, a USA Today series titled, “Mental Illness: The Cost of Not Caring,” which offers several solutions to the mental illness epidemic, will call the public’s attention to the mental illness and associated poverty issue. The series outlines solutions such as housing support to provide a variety of services beyond low-cost apartments; supported employment programs that provide one-on-one job coaching has been found to triple the employment rate of people with serious mental illness from 20 percent to 60 percent; a NAMI-endorsed Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) which provides 24-hour community (versus hospital) support to those with serious impairments who cannot function on their own (USA Today reports that due to the team efforts involved in the ACT program in Wisconsin, 50 to 60 percent of ACT participants are working); and the Judicial Criminal Mental Health Project for incarcerated mentally ill individuals developed by Judge Steven Leifman, co-chair of the Council of State Governments; TAPA Center for Jail Diversion Judges’ Criminal Justice; Mental Health Leadership Initiative; and member of the National Leadership Forum on Behavioral Health/Criminal Justice Services (NLF).

These programs certainly offer hope for an improved quality of life for the millions suffering with various types of mental illness. Hopefully, putting the media spotlight on them will inspire effective state and federal action.