Thread on dealing with a mentally ill person in a cohousing community
From: Joani Blank (
Date: Sun, 1 Apr 2007 14:45:51 -0700 (PDT)

I was not happy to see the thread on dealing with a mentally ill person in a community run out on this listerve. I was one of about 20 people to whom Diana sent her message originally. I sent my response to all those twenty, after I read the responses of a few people, because I felt that it was appropriate for discussion among this very small group, and because I had quite a different perspective on the subject from the first five or six responders had. I hadn't read cohousing-l for a couple of days that day and had no idea the topic had gotten out to the listserve.

Now, however, I've heard from a couple of individuals that they agree with me "one hundred percent," and that leads me to want to share my initial response on this list. Otherwise, I fear, some listserve readers will have left this topic a little less enthusiastic about living in community, or even fearful that the openness that those of us who live in cohousing treasure so much, might expose them at the least to some great discomfort, and at the most, to actual danger.'s the email I wrote to Diana:


I have something different to say from what I've read by others in response to your email. What I say may seem blunt and even uncaring to some who read my email, but I want you all to know that I have a lot of compassion for your troubled neighbor and awareness of how difficult and painful it is for those of you living in Earthaven to deal with her and take care of yourselves at the same time. I can also fully understand why many in your community would like to solve the problems she has created internally, by coming to some agreement about how you should behave with her. But I think you need outside support and action for this one.

1. This woman is a danger to herself and others (at least sometimes). In California, and I believe in most other states, there is a law that allows for a 72 hour involuntary hold in a psychiatric facility for persons who are found, by friends, family or the police, to be a danger to themselves or others.

2. Whether or not you or her mother can and do go the way of an initiating an involuntary hospitalization, your first order of business needs to be to make sure that this woman is prohibited from being on your property. This may mean getting a restraining order from your county court, and making sure that the police are informed if she comes onto the property.

3. Although she refuses treatment, she must have been prescribed meds by a psychiatrist at some point, and if you can find out from her mother who that doctor was, you may be able to talk to him and her, and get his or her advice about next steps. On the other hand, that person may refuse to talk with you or the woman's mother, or even acknowledge that the woman is his or her patient, because of confidentiality agreements or understandings. Also, is there any chance that there is another relative who might be able to help.

4. As far as the response of the community is concerned, in particular the fact of community members having sex with her, it is important that visitors and worksharers be told about her, of course. But then, to put it really bluntly, any adult man knowing about her psychosis who has sex with her is being just plain stupid.

If she is prohibited from being on the property and an adult man goes to her home to have sex with her, that is his prerogative, and although other community members may think that is "bad," I say, it's none of their business. If any person has unprotected intercourse with anyone, psychotic or not, whose STD status is unknown to him or her, he or she is being stupid. but it is still none of the community's business. This woman's seductiveness or her promiscuity or the fact that she might have STDs, is completely beside the point.

5. Those in the community who feel that befriending her, being gentle with her, asking her firmly but politely to leave when her behavior gets too outrageous, is therapeutic for her, and that love and support are the best thing for her, are not themselves crazy, nor are they necessarily ill-informed. They may be subscribers to a theoretical approach to "treatment" for mental illness that some reasonable and a few very well known psychotherapists practice. HOWEVER, I don't think any experts in that field would expect a group of untrained lay people, no matter how well intentioned, to practice this form of treatment outside of an explicitly therapeutic community/setting. That fact makes all speculation about how community members might change their behavior to "handle" this situation or discussions about whether or not her illness is "physical" or not, completely moot, IMHO.

6. No one has mentioned the horrible effect that seeing....or even hearing about....this woman's bizarre behavior must be having on the children in your community. Some kids might find in her behavior cause for completely inappropriate derision; others might be absolutely terrified, even if she never even came close to them.....and goodness knows what other trauma from witnessing her bizarre behavior. If I were living there and had young kids, I think I'd have to move away if the community were unwilling to prohibit her from being present on community property.

7. Everyone in your community has the right to live in relative peace and quiet, so I say in this case that the position of the most conservative of your group, those who just want her to be off the property, needs to trump the position of those who want to continue working with (and around) her, even if those more conservative people are in the minority. If this woman's friends in the community and those who think that their actively relating to her contributes to her health and well-being want to continue spending time with her, they can do it of course, and I say more power to them. But they need to go outside of Earthaven to do so..

I fear this is an abrupt ending, but I've got other fish to fry before I retire tonight.

My 10 cents,

p.s. (writing April 1) For those who don't already know it, Earthhaven is not a cohousing community, thus the references to guests "work exchangers"....I accidentally called them worksharers....which cohousing communities don't typically have. This is not to say that a cohousing community might not also have to handle a similar situation.

In addition to the examples some responders have offered (which I would say are for the most part not as serious), I know of at least one case where the mentally ill person, clearly as ill as (or more perhaps even more ill than) the woman described in Diana's inquiry, was actually a homeowner in the community. Eventually the community was able to get her to move out, but not before several others thought seriously about selling their homes and leaving. Had I been living there, I would have pushed for exactly the same actions I suggest in my email above.

If you have anything more to say about this, I hope you will communicate directly with Diana, and leave it to her to forward your response to whomever she things should see it. (or ask her not to share it at all if that is your preference). Or if you have either a positive or negative reaction to my posting please feel free to communicate off-list and privately with me.

Joani Blank
Swan's Market Cohousing
Oakland, CA

Joani Blank
land line (preferred): 510-834-7399
cell: 510-387-1315
joani [at]

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