Improving Mental Health Systems Could Help Curb Homelessness

Mental Illness

This article was written to reduce the stigma surrounding psychosis and homelessness. The mental health system must change to effectively and rapidly treat psychosis.

I became homeless in late 2019. Paranoid and believing it was unsafe in my country, I fled to the United Kingdom and then to Canada. My fiancé had proposed and then disappeared without a trace, partly because of familial opposition to the marriage. I was suicidal because I couldn’t contact him, and no one would help me find him. It felt like being under a medieval “do not help” royal decree (yes, such a thing does exist).

Unbeknownst to myself, the broken engagement and stress of not being able to locate him induced psychosis. By the time I began to travel in 2019, I was seriously unwell.

I resigned from my job as an archaeologist and flew north to tropical islands before landing at Heathrow in the United Kingdom. Making my way north to Scotland and the Orkney Isles, I then flew to Canada.

I had traveled widely in an academic career before becoming unwell. Due to several suicide attempts, I felt that my life was in danger in my home country, where they did not provide help or adequate treatment.

During my illness, I repeatedly asked for help with no answer. I found a complete failure of mental health services in several countries before receiving adequate treatment. This is partly due to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

There is poor community knowledge of approaching or treating someone who has psychosis. Although people realized I was ill, they did not assist me in obtaining treatment.

Mental illness is a unique paradox. Those affected sometimes do not know that they are ill, which necessitates an outside party to assist them in obtaining medical attention. Help was not forthcoming in my situation for several years.

After my first hospitalization, a local medic told me there was no need for me to take the prescribed antipsychotic medication. After my second hospitalization, I was released without any follow-up care or medication. Doctors ultimately failed to identify or medicate my psychosis during my third hospitalization.

During the fourth hospitalization, I finally received injections of the antipsychotic drug risperidone. By this stage, I had been homeless for six months in a shelter without receiving treatment, despite stating that I had a mental illness upon intake.

It had taken months upon months for me to receive treatment. I was unwell for some time before my symptoms became apparent, although I continued my career and worked for years with mild symptoms.

When I recovered, I was distraught by what I had said when I was unwell: I had been very rude and delusional to many people, to whom I unreservedly apologize.

People with severe mental illness are often considered not responsible for their actions due to mental impairment. That was certainly the case in my situation.

The stigma around what can be a life-threatening mental illness needs to change. Society needs to accept that psychosis is just like any other illness: treatable and horrific for those experiencing it.

Many people who have psychosis describe the “torture” of the illness, and some psychiatrists describe the ordeal of mental illness as a kind of trauma. Had I been diagnosed with cancer, I would have been surrounded by sympathy and understanding. However, psychotic illnesses are not treated the same way as physical illnesses by the general public.

Due to the stigma surrounding psychosis, I was very anxious about how society would react once I had recovered. Although attitudes to some mental illnesses have softened and changed in recent years (depression, anxiety, PTSD), the stigma surrounding psychosis has not changed. This is despite many famous people in history suffering from paranoia and hallucinations.

The current royal family of Great Britain has a history of mental illness.

Queen Elizabeth’s mother-in-law and Prince Charles’ grandmother Princess Alice of Battenburg, confined in a sanatorium for many years with schizophrenia.

King George the III is believed to have had the genetic blood disorder porphyria, which can cause paranoia and hallucinations. Other well-known people with severe mental illnesses include the artist Vincent Van Gogh, who famously cut off his ear during a psychotic episode.

Some experts believe a statistical link between mental illness and creativity exists. While I was homeless, I worked on writing a book about my situation, which I hope to publish soon.

There is a persistent myth that people with severe mental illness are dangerous. It is untrue. People with severe or psychotic mental illnesses are no more likely than the general population to be dangerous or violent. However, they are statistically more likely to have had violence inflicted upon them.

Throughout history, in various cultures, some people with a mental illness were often revered as spiritual leaders, shamans, prophets, or as being gifted with “second sight.”

Such people were sometimes believed to have a connection with the spirit world. In some cases, they became leaders or were worshipped. In more modern times, those with psychosis are shunned and feared. Still, they are no more likely to be violent than the general population.

The mental health system in most developed countries is inadequately equipped to meet and treat severe mental illnesses in a timely and effective fashion. Had I received treatment earlier, I might not have become homeless or ill.


Margaret Mathieson

Margaret Mathieson holds a PhD in archaeology and became homeless due to a severe and life-threatening mental illness, which was triggered by a broken engagement. She was homeless for over a year but recovered rapidly with appropriate medication. She has written about her illness and homelessness to reduce the stigma surrounding life-threatening mental health conditions.

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