Helping the Mentally Ill Homeless Take Their Medication

The homeless situation in New York has become an epidemic. According to The Coalition for the Homeless, there are about 50,000 homeless people in New York City. Walking down the street, it is hard not to notice that many of the homeless people have mental and physiological disabilities. Is there something that can be done to better the mental health of the homeless, and, as a result, their quality of life?

The Bowery Misson. photo credit Cori O'Connor.

One pragmatic solution may prove effective: keeping the mentally ill homeless on their medication. In an article entitled, “Medication: The Foundation for Recovery,”Edward Frencell, a social worker and board member of multiple mental illness organizations, writes that although medication is not an "all-inclusive cure,” it can “make a tremendous difference in a consumer’s life.”

A significant obstacle in accomplishing this is the amount of energy and resources necessary to establish an institution focused on caring for the mentally handicapped. But an institution already exists to  accept this challenge: homeless shelters.

Shelters could establish a system for keeping the mentally ill homeless on their medications. For the purpose of continuity, a centralized method of recording and storing the medical histories and needs of each individual that checks into a shelter could emerge.

Then, if a small medical staff at each homeless shelter were authorized to do so, they could hold these people accountable for taking their medicine. The shelters could also encourage the homeless to return to the same location or branch each time for follow-up.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, 46,000 of the 50,000 homeless are part of the shelter system, so it makes sense to develop the initiative at a place where the people who need medicine won’t have to go out of their way to receive it.

One problem people often encounter when trying to help the mentally ill is that despite the usefulness of medication, they simply don’t want to take it. This very struggle is often what causes homelessness in the first place.

But perhaps homeless shelters could use incentives of some kind.

A British online publication, The Independent, published an article entitled “Mentally ill offered cash incentives to take drugs.” The article describes this difficulty of getting the mentally ill to accept medication and explains the results of a test done on four patients with schizophrenia. The patients received between five and 15 euros each time they took their medication.

“The payments handed out by the Newham Centre for Mental Health in east London have dramatically improved the patients' adherence to treatment and reduced the time they spend in hospital suffering relapses, and problems with neighbors and the police,” the article said.

The NYC shelters could install an incentive system that involved "stores," with items such as food, blankets, pillows and clothing. Each time a person took their medicine they could earn some type of redeemable “dollar” and save their earned currency to purchase things at the store.

A system like this would undoubtedly bring some difficulties of its own, but if something as simple as keeping people on their medications can turn lives around, it’s worth a try. It would also be a step toward greater change in New York's homeless epidemic, bringing individuals off of the streets, a few at a time.