Seeking advice re mentally ill community member
From: Fred H Olson (
Date: Fri, 30 Mar 2007 19:36:18 -0700 (PDT)
Diana Christian <christian_d1 [at]>
is the author of the message below.
It was posted by Fred the Cohousing-L list manager <fholson [at]>
due to a problem.
--------------------  FORWARDED MESSAGE FOLLOWS --------------------


I'm seeking help from people who may have dealt with having a
mentally ill person living in their community. In our case, the
person is a neighbor who comes over every day and often sleeps here
on someone's porch, or in the woods. It's a very painful, sad situation.

        We're having a meeting this Sunday morning to talk about what to do,
and the community is divided.

        Would you be willing to read this, below, and, if you like, respond
to my request for information, below that?

        The neighbor is in her 30s and is brilliant, perhaps a genius; is
extremely, even uncannily intuitive. For example, if any of us are
talking about her, she calls shows up at our door or calls on the
phone; if we're having a meeting about her, she walks into the
meeting. We can count on it. She also has many admirable, wonderful

She has been diagnosed with schizophrenic affective disorder.
Apparently the most common form of death of people with this
diagnosis is suicide.

When she's taking her medication, she's attractive, kind, warm,
smart, and funny. When she doesn't take it, she's unkempt, wears
dirty clothes with holes in them, and looks miserable and ill. Many
Earthaven members like her, and/or love her. She's been coming here
regularly for about 10 years. She comes here like a moth to a light,
because she yearns for friends, connection, community.

        Her mother, who is wealthy, has taken her to many treatment
programs, including the Menninger Clinic. The young woman has been
hospitalized several times, and escaped from the mental hospitals.
She refuses treatment, and the mother will not force treatment on
her. Her mother has given up, says she feels overwhelmed, and now
says, "Well, maybe Earthaven can help her." Meaning, the mother is
fine with her daughter using us as a kind of self-chosen therapy
situation. We don't believe she realizes how seriously psychotic her
daughter is behaving lately.

        Here's what our ill neighbor does, in-between the times she's kind,
warm, funny, brilliant, etc.
        * She goes into our houses and steals things or eats our food, and
often leaves a token object to replace what she takes. She just took
the truck of one of our members, drove it around, and returned it
several hours later.
        * She walks into any committee meeting or workshop, says long
strings of words in a high-pitched voice, which only semi-make sense.
        * She gets drunk, gets high, and takes hallucinogens, each of which
makes her behavior more extreme.
        * She's sexually promiscuous and some believe she has venereal
diseases; she's available to many men here and new men like work
exchangers don't know her background, especially when she seems
lucid, kind, and wonderful.
        * She rolls up in a ball by the side of the road and moans. She
sleeps down by the stream at night and screams.
        * She hears voices which tell her to mutilate her mouth, so she
steals small drills like Dremel drills and drills against her teeth
at the gums to drill her teeth out of her head. (I'm sorry to tell
you something so gruesome.) She'll do this in one of our houses, over
the kitchen or bathroom sink, because of the blood.
        * She has some teeth missing, and false teeth, which she'll take out
and leave out, and her partly toothless smile is fairly startling,
especially if you're not used to it (like our visitors aren't.)
        * When people give her limits, she'll follow them right away;
however, the more limits she gets ("Please go home now"), the more
she acts out, and often against herself. Some are afraid to tell her
to go home, because they'd feel responsible if she tried to hurt

When any of us  sees her, we see a seriously mentally ill neighbor.
When a visitor or brand-new work exchanger see her, they see an
Earthaven member, because they wouldn't have any way of knowing she's
a visiting neighbor.

        Earthaven members who are older, have more community experience, or
have lived here longer and have known her for many years, believe she
should either be told not to come here anymore (enforced by each of
us gently telling her this when we see her here) or, should only be
here when accompanied at all times by one of her friends here. They
definitely feel no one should drink or take other substances with
her, or have sex with her. They have compassion for her, but they
have more compassion for the community's long-term well-being. This
is my viewpoint too.

        People who are younger, have less community experience, or who
haven't lived here long and thus don't know her as well, have
compassion for this neighbor, whom they believe should be allowed to
come and go freely. That it's fine to offer her and/or take alcohol
or other substances with her, or be her lover.
        They  think that with kindness and friendship, she will heal or get

        One of our other neighbors is a mental health professional who says,
if you
become friends with a psychotic person, they will most likely make
you part of their
psychosis. It's very likely they'll punish you someday, for "being
too much in their head." So to stop you from doing that bad thing to
them -- being in their head -- they'll come
over to your house and try to harm you or themselves in some way.
Various people here have experienced this, but they don't understand
why she treats them this way. They think they need to continue
befriending her, and with enough kindness, she won't steal their
things or hurt herself anymore.

        People with these two viewpoints are upset with each other. It's the
ones with compassion primarily for the community vs. the ones with
compassion primarily for our neighbor.
        The longer-time or older community members consider the other people
uninformed, irresponsible, and possibly setting us up for great harm
or tragedy.
        The younger or shorter-term members are shocked by this viewpoint
and label the older ones as inhumane, unkind, uncompassionate. This
hurts the older ones' feelings and in order not to be labeled like
this,  they often fear to express their view because of social
pressure and don't say what they really want, which is for Earthaven
to protect itself by not allowing our neighbor to come here anymore.

        I personally, consider the latter "innocently arrogant" because they
believe their kindness and generosity will make a difference. And
because it feels good to believe oneself to be kind to the less
fortunate, and to be able to help them. It feels good to consider
oneself a healer.  Also, because they'd believe themselves and our
community responsible if our neighbor harmed or killed herself
because she felt rejected by us.

        I believe the view of mental health professionals is that a serious
illness, mental or physical, doesn't heal because of being with
kindness or having a community experience (tho it's in general good
for one's health to live in community). For example, at Earthaven we
have contributing, beloved members who are well respected and
supported by the rest of us, who experience various illnesses,
including epilepsy, diabetes, cerebral palsy, psoriasis, athsma,
rheumatoid arthritis, phlebitis, and backs that get strained and
painful if the person lifts things certain ways. As much as we love
them, and as long as they've lived in community, these people still
experience their symptoms. The love, kindness, and support of the
rest of us has not magically transformed their illnesses.
        I believe some of our members don't realize that mental illness is
not different than physical illnesses in this way, and that it's a
kind of naive hubris to think their love and kindness will transform
our neighbor's mental illness.

        Thank you for reading this! Here's my request. If you've had
experience with a mentally ill member or person who visited your
community a lot, did you have experiences like these? How did your
community resolve it?
        Did your community finally decide to ask the person to leave?
        Did some people think their kindness could heal the person, and
others think it was an illness that kindness couldn't cure and your
community was not set up to be a therapeutic situation?
        Have you had a mentally ill person mutilate themselves or kill
themselves on your property? (I'm so sorry to ask such an awful
question.) And if so, what were the results or consequences for your

        Thank you in advance for any advice about this painful,
heartbreaking dilemma.

        Diana Christian

Communities Magazine: ;

Diana Leafe Christian:

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