Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin.
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"I have my own place," Terri bragged to my mother, beaming, at 36 years old. "Daddy bought it for me." Eleanor came by at least once and sometimes twice a week. She took Terri to her favorite restaurant, McDonald's, or to the park, or to go buy her nieces Christmas presents with money she saved from her Social Security check. (Terri liked to give me bubbles and sidewalk chalk, even when I was in college.) Every three weeks, Eleanor took my aunt to get her antipsychotic haloperidol injections, which Terri stopped refusing after my grandfather convinced her they were necessary for her own and everyone else's good. Eleanor took her to Neighboring, a local nonprofit, which offered field trips, skill-building lessons about cooking or doing laundry, and support groups about medication side effects, as well as art classes, the results of which were sometimes displayed in the local mall.
"She just had a few little problems" with neighbors once she was in her own place, Eleanor says. The rock music, of course. An obsession with hoses that made her turn them on and leave them on, flooding the driveway. "But since they owned it there's nothing they could do." She lived on her own for almost two decades. "She did better than you could really expect for someone so mentally ill."
So mentally ill: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the term "mentally ill" can be applied to a whopping quarter of the US adult population in any given year, because broadly, it includes everything from depression to attention deficit disorder. "Seriously mentally ill," however, is used to describe severe functional impairments like major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, which occur in up to 6 percent of the population. Within the severely mentally ill schizophrenic population ( about 2.4 million Americans), my aunt—who constantly talked to invisible people, and got "pregnant" at 19 with Yes bassist Chris Squire's baby ("It always came back to Chris Squire," my mom says), her belly swelling realistically huge with his imaginary baby inside it—classified as low-functioning, making her about as mentally ill as a person can be. Still. With family and a few resources in place, Social Security checks and housing subsidies and a great caseworker, "she was able to manage on her own," Eleanor says.
At Aunt Terri's funeral, my family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the mental-health organizations that made her life possible. We nieces who lived out of town and couldn't make it were instructed to honor Terri and her love of loud music by throwing ourselves a peace-disturbing one-person dance party at the time of the service, wherever we were. My grandma and Aunt Paula resolved to find a broke veteran (who turned out to be struggling with his own psychological issues) and to give Terri's trailer to him. My grandmother wanted to help other people needing help since the government had helped Terri. "She was independent until the very end," she says.
"I'm so grateful," she says, "that we had so much support."
"Ohio once had one of the top mental health systems in the country," lamented the National Alliance on Mental Illness in a 2011 report. "Today, after several years of significant budget cuts, thousands of youth and adults living with serious mental illness are unable to access care in the community and are ending up either on the streets or in far more expensive settings, such as hospitals and jails."
The glory days of Ohio's mental-health department had already come to an end by the time the budget crises of the late 2000s rolled around. But the recession and the subsequent tea party austerity movement made things even worse. On the list of the 10 states that cut the most from mental-health budgets between 2009 and 2011, Ohio was No. 6. Then Gov. John Kasich's 2012-13 budget slashed local government funds by a billion dollars and continued a trend of downsizing community mental-health programs. "The most fragile people in our society, we looked out for them," the governor said. "And if there's a hole or a mistake, we'll come back later to figure it out." (He's since proposed restoring some services.)