Health: Medical care is adapting to the mental health crisis. Courtesy photo

While the deadly pandemic recedes, a more insidious epidemic continues to spread unabated on the streets of LA — that of mental illness.

Climbing rates of mental illness are fueling and exacerbating the City’s homelessness crisis.

With the problem only worsening under the isolation and financial pressure of the pandemic, local organizations are realizing it needs to be tackled with the same vigor and resources as physical diseases.

UCLA Health, the largest provider of mental health services in West LA, is sounding the alarm and seeking to scale up their programming. On Thursday at 6 p.m. they are live streaming a “We Shine Together” benefit concert to fundraise for an expansion of their inpatient and outpatient mental health care.

The event will feature performances by John Legend, Black Pumas and Joy Oladokun who will each speak on their experiences dealing with mental health.

Eric Burton of Black Pumas knows firsthand the toll that economic hardship can take on one’s mental wellbeing. When he was in his twenties and his mother fell ill, he would take two trains and two buses to come busk on the Santa Monica Pier for money. While Burton was able to pull himself and his family up through hard work and talent, many are not as fortunate.

With a shrinking social safety net, a growing number of Californians end up living on the streets every year. In Santa Monica, the unhoused population is becoming increasingly characterized by severe mental illness.

“We know mental health challenges are a major driver for homelessness,” said John Maceri, CEO of the People Concern, Santa Monica’s largest homeless services provider. “We’ve seen that increase over the years and not just in the last year of the pandemic. We’re seeing a lot more serious and untreated persistent mental illness.”

Some people become homeless due to severe mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Others fall into homelessness and subsequently develop mental illnesses from the trauma of life on the street, which makes it harder for them to stabilize and get help.

According to Maceri, around 90 percent of chronically homeless individuals are struggling with some form of mental illness.

Ulandsey Peterson is a client at the People Concern’s Turning Point interim housing facility and has grappled with serious depression his entire life. He is an industrious, intelligent and compassionate man, who started his career repairing computer systems for the US Army.

Peterson has been in and out of homelessness several times several times in his life. While he has sought therapy for his depression for many years, he refused to take any medication for decades.

“I was very resistant to the medication. I didn’t want to take any risk whatsoever of being hooked on anything,” said Peterson, explaining that this fear comes from seeing “what drugs have done to the black community, specifically opioids and cocaine, but even cigarettes and alcohol.”

Prior to the pandemic, Peterson was living out of his car and working as a rideshare driver. He experienced a stroke in March 2020 and narrowly escaped permanent brain damage. During his recovery treatment he began taking a small dose of Zoloft to help regain his motor functions and was shocked to see how his mood stabilized.

He gained trust in the medication and began taking a full therapeutic dose. Now at the age of 50, he is able to escape the up and down cycles of depression that had plagued his entire life.

“In the hospital I was almost inconsolable, the amount of crying I did, the depth of how sad I was and how much I hated myself,” said Peterson. “But I’m fine now. I feel productive and my mood is stable.”

For Peterson, a lack of trust in the medical establishment prevented him from accessing the support he needed. Other unhoused individuals struggle because they cannot travel to a clinic for care or afford medication. People also shirk away from treatment because of previous bad experiences, cultural barriers, or the stigma associated with these drugs.

Maceri said The People Concern recognizes the many barriers unhoused individuals face in accessing mental health treatment and focuses on meeting clients where they are at.

“Making services more street-based and accessible for people makes a huge difference,” said Maceri, adding that his teams of physicians and psychiatrists will deliver services, including mental health medication, directly to encampments.

While Maceri believes that street-based mental health interventions should be scaled up across LA, he realizes that this is addressing the symptoms of the problem and not the root.

Fully tackling the mental health crisis and its relation to the homelessness crisis will require building a new infrastructure around mental health. One potential model being studied by the L.A. Department of Mental Health is the community based mental health system used in Trieste, Italy.

“It’s built on what they call ‘radical hospitality’ — this idea that there is a sense of purpose, place and belonging for people,” said Marceri. “So it’s not about trying to institutionalize everybody, but it’s really the opposite. It’s about giving meaningful daily activities and enough wraparound services, so folks don’t just live, but they thrive.”