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‘I was going broke’ — a side effect of mental illness

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When Kayla was diagnosed with depression in 2017, it took doctors four months to find a medication that worked for her. During those four months, Kayla, whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy, struggled to manage her symptoms.

“It’s just having completely no energy,” Kayla said. “It feels like you literally can’t get out of bed.”

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE: 1-800-273-8255 or chat online

To help her cope with the symptoms, Kayla began using marijuana. 

“I wasn’t high every day,” Kayla said. “I can’t vibe like that. I would get about a gram, and that would last me a week. It helped for a little while, but it wasn’t a complete fix. But it made me feel a little better, and I could afford it.”

While marijuana has been legalized in Illinois and Michigan for medicinal and recreational use, the drug is still illegal in Indiana. Despite some concerns of getting caught, Kayla, 23, said she didn’t have many options when she was initially diagnosed. 

“Some [of the medications she tried] made my depression worse, which they said was normal,” Kayla said. “Others made me feel like I was a zombie. I wasn’t sad anymore, I was just numb.”

For Kayla, who was a college student at the time of her diagnosis, the decision to self-medicate with marijuana was also a financial one. 

“I was going to the doctor once a week for $50 a session,” Kayla said. “I was going broke.”

Kayla was diagnosed after her sorority sister at Northern Michigan University recommended she go to the campus counseling service. She said a therapist told her it was shocking she hadn’t spoken to someone before due to the severity of her depression. 

While Kayla said her family was able to help her keep a roof over her head, she said she understands how the cost of medication could be a factor in homelessness. 

Colleen Gore, who oversees women’s programming at Wheeler Mission, said mental health issues often go hand in hand with homelessness. 

“Mental health is a significant factor [in homelessness],” Gore said. “A large percentage of those Wheeler serves either have untreated, undertreated or undiagnosed mental health issues. You see that a lot in people experiencing chronic homelessness.” 

For many experiencing both mental health issues and homelessness, treatment is difficult. On one hand, Gore said, stable housing and employment are easier when one is getting the treatment they need. However, costs can force individuals to go off of their medication. For someone experiencing homelessness, finding the funds to get a prescription filled can be nearly impossible. 

Gore said homelessness, mental health problems and substance abuse is a “three-legged stool” and one issue cannot be fixed without addressing the other two issues. 

A study conducted by Community Partners in Care, a collaborative research group based in Los Angeles, found that individuals with at least one symptom of a mental illness were significantly more likely to use illicit drugs.

“I smoked weed to manage my symptoms,” Kayla said. “But I was always afraid of alcohol, because my family has a history with that. I’ve seen a lot of people lose control, so I never let myself drink when my depression gets bad. I don’t want to use it to numb my feelings.”

Stigma can also keep people from taking or continuing medication. 

“As a Black person, a mental illness is another target on your back,” Kayla said. “I’m a woman. I’m Black. I’m queer, and I’m mentally ill? That’s just one more thing that makes me ‘lesser’ in some people’s eyes. I’m lucky that both of my parents were understanding, but a lot of people don’t have that support system. I think a lot of times, when people turn to drugs, it’s because they didn’t have resources, and they didn’t have that support.” 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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