By Jim Bell, CEO, Siloam Mission

In my neighbourhood there used to be an elderly lady who would walk the streets with a rickety cart she pulled behind her.

We would spot her at almost all hours of the day, her cart overflowing with plastic garbage bags. She would fill them up with stuff she found in back lanes.

People in the area used to call her the ‘crazy bag lady.’

It was an unkind thing to say, but it also revealed the way most of us have come to view those on the fringes of society.

Homelessness has the stereotype of people battling mental health issues — and I’ll admit, there are situations we encounter at Siloam Mission with people who may appear a bit unusual.

But I think our culture is coming to realize that all sectors of society have people who struggle with mental health issues.

And if we want to truly eradicate homelessness, we have to start by addressing mental health issues in our own homes.

You’d be surprised how many people who end up in a homeless shelter come from otherwise normal lives. Many used to have a loving family. Some used to have promising careers.

But somewhere along the line, a mental health issue robbed their ability to cope with everyday life.

Depression, anxiety and schizophrenia set in and crippled them. Their relationships deteriorated. They lost their jobs. They became alienated from their families and support system.

And then, one day, they ended up on the street.

It sounds dramatic, but it’s the true story of many in our city. And it could happen to almost anyone. That’s because most mental health disorders don’t discriminate.

Schizophrenia most often starts in the late teens to early 30’s. A perfectly healthy and capable young person with a promising future can all the sudden appear to lose touch with reality.

They may start having delusions and hallucinations. Become dysfunctional in their thinking. Start behaving erratically.

Without a strong support system, it’s easy to see how they could end up losing everything.

Depression can hit anyone at any time, causing deep feelings of sadness and loss of interest in most things in life. It can cause a person to feel worthless and guilty, including thoughts of suicide and death.

Many people struggling with depression have trouble sleeping and lose most of their energy.

It can be nearly impossible to keep a job or a regular schedule when one is exhausted and stuck in a cycle of hopelessness.

Anxiety, for example, can be completely disabling. Like most other forms of mental illness, anxiety comes from a combination of things that can include changes in your brain as well as environmental stresses. That means you and I are just as likely to face a mental health challenge as anyone else.

When we talk about ending homelessness we often focus on providing housing and jobs. And yes, those are crucial to help people rebuild their life and move forward. But the fact is, you have to be healthy enough, both physically and mentally, to retain the job that helps you pay for your home.

That’s why if you made me choose where we should invest most of our money up front to end homelessness, preventing and treating mental health issues would be among the challenges at the top of the list.

Recently, Siloam Mission was honoured to be chosen to participate in a national mental health study focusing on mental health and recovery. The study defines recovery as being able ‘to live a satisfying, hopeful and contributing life despite the limitations of mental illness.’

And that’s something we’re excited to be a part of because after all, the ‘crazies on the street’ are someone’s mom or brother, friend or colleague. They deserve to live as fulfilling a life as a member of our own families, don’t you think?

Originally published by The Winnipeg Free Press