Interconnected: The Trifecta of Mental Illness, Poverty and Physical Challenges

“It’s all very interconnected,” says Alice Zaccarello, Executive Director of the Well Community. “Our members have a trifecta. They live with serious mental illness, all live in poverty and many have physical health conditions.” Each of those things is difficult, but when wrapped together they become an interwoven struggle that makes it incredibly difficult to pursue stability and wellbeing.

Dealing with a mental health struggle puts a person at greater risk for a host of other conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Many of these conditions negatively impact not only quality of life but also length of life. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that those suffering from serious mental illnesses have a life span that is 11-30 years shorter than that of the general population.

Many factors contribute to this elevated risk, not the least of which are the very medications used to treat serious mental illnesses. While these drugs can have a dramatic impact on mental health stability, they can also be very hard on the body, especially when taken over the long term. In addition to increasing susceptibility for numerous diseases, many of these medications can cause fatigue and sleep disturbances, which can make it more difficult for those who are taking them to get up early in the morning, be active and pursue other healthy habits. Compounded with the impact that mental health struggles can have on energy and mood, these side effects can be crippling.

“Mental illness can take a toll on the body physically,” says Ericka Ruiz, Program Manager for the Well. “Many people think individuals like Well Community members are lazy and that they don’t want to help themselves. But living with these challenges can be debilitating. … It’s difficult sometimes for them to be able to deal with normal, daily activities.”

Barriers to Care

Even though individuals dealing with serious mental illnesses are more prone to many physical conditions, they’re less likely to see a doctor or other medical professional. Alice shares that most people living with these illnesses don’t have primary care physicians and only receive medical care through emergency room services. And, often, the time required in a waiting room at a medical facility is a deterrent. “Just having to sit and wait is really difficult for them, and it’s hard for them to deal with crowds, as crowds intensify anxiety,” Alice explains.

In addition, those living with serious mental health challenges often struggle to trust health care providers. Many have faced stigma and discrimination within the health care system and have received inadequate care as a result, causing hesitancy about seeking treatment again. And, as Alice adds, “People of color, like many members of the Well, haven’t had a good experience with medical treatment in the past.”

The compounding issues of poverty and housing instability also create numerous barriers to receiving health care. For the majority of Well Community members who rely on public assistance, the cost of a prescription or a bus ride to the doctor is significant, leading some to forgo treatment. Those who are homeless or in unsafe housing face the risk of having their medication stolen, and sticking to a treatment plan amid the challenges of living on the street or in a shelter is a monumental task.

The Role of Community

Amid this trifecta of mental illness, poverty and physical health challenges, a supportive community can play a powerful role in helping individuals take healthy steps and stick with a treatment plan. Ericka shares that those who have supportive family members are more likely to receive care for health conditions and stick with a treatment plan than those who are navigating their conditions alone.

Being part of a caring network of people can also make all the difference in a health crisis, as was the case recently for a resident of Jacob’s House, the Well’s group home for men whose lives have been disrupted by mental illness and poverty. When he was facing a serious heart issue, one that had him making two trips a week to the ER for over six weeks, the other residents were looking out for him and called an ambulance. Eventually, the hospital recommended and did heart surgery just a few weeks ago. Unlike many dealing with serious mental illnesses, he has a doctor recommended by the hospital and is now getting the treatment he needs.

In addition to the support it provides for the residents of Jacob’s House, the Well Community comes alongside its members in numerous ways to help them pursue overall health as they deal with issues like diabetes and chronic pain in addition to serious mental illnesses. Because its members are food insecure, often wondering where their next meal is coming from, the Well serves nutritious and filling lunches and dinners. It provides bus passes that make it possible for members to ride to the doctor, and it has funds available to help them pay for medication when they run out of their small amount of monthly funds. When members are injured or facing mobility challenges, the Well has wheelchairs, crutches and walkers they can use. Case management services help members access the resources that are available to them. And being in a caring, accepting environment encourages them to follow treatment plans. For example, Alice explains, “Coming to the Well helps people stay on their medication.”

The Well is also grateful to welcome the Parkland Hospital HOMES (Homeless Outreach Medical Services) mobile clinic every other week to serve Well Community members and neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. There, they can see a doctor and get prescriptions without having to sit in a crowded waiting room. “They wouldn’t get care otherwise,” Alice says.

While the trifecta remains a challenge for those living with serious mental illnesses, community can be a key to addressing these intertwining struggles. And, at the Well, individuals facing these barriers don’t have to do so alone.

There are numerous ways to help Well Community members dealing with the trifecta of mental illness, poverty and physical health challenges. By volunteering at the Resource Center, serving a meal or purchasing items from our Amazon Wishlist, you can come alongside them in pursuing health and stability. Contact us to learn more!

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