For someone who suffers with a mental disability, the transition from living at home to living independently poses a number of challenges. The everyday chores and duties that the average person takes for granted may not be so easily accomplished by someone with a mental disability such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, especially if he’s been cocooned during his earlier years and his life skills are underdeveloped or have not been tested. The US Government Accountability Office estimates that in 2006 at least 2.4 million young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 suffered from a serious mental illness. According to researchers, public officials, and mental health advocates, these individuals can have difficulty in making the transition to adulthood, including finding suitable housing, as the services that can assist in this process aren’t available to them. So what can be done to help someone with a mental disability make the move to living on his own a successful one?
It’s important to identify what skills are needed for a young adult with mental disabilities to become independent and, if applicable, how they can be developed. In order for an individual to be able to live on his own successfully, he will need to be able to take care of his personal needs – dressing, eating, hygiene – as well as manage simple household chores such as the laundry and grocery shopping. But how well an individual is able to carry out these tasks will depend on his experience to date. For example, if he’s been involved in chores at home, then he will be better prepared than if he’s had no exposure at all. One way to prepare a young adult for independent living is to get him involved in the types of daily tasks that he’ll be undergoing himself when living alone. This will not only equip him with the necessary experience and skills, but also help to instill a degree of confidence in him. Coping with these tasks isn’t merely a matter of performing certain actions; they require decisions which a person with a mental disability may not be able to confidently make unassisted. Decisions must also be made when dealing with financial matters such as paying bills and managing a bank account, tasks which a young adult with a mental disability may not have experience of but which are all necessary if he wants to live independently.
It’s easy to overlook the simple everyday actions and behaviors that a person carries out that keep him safe and protect his well-being, and which, for a person with a mental disability, may prove challenging. For example, reading and understanding food labels is something that few people who live independently would ever have difficulty with, yet neglecting to do this, which an individual with a mental disability could conceivably do, could result in unfortunate consequences. Likewise, being able to cook and prepare food safely is another important factor for someone living alone. It’s these sorts of issues that have to be addressed before a person with a mental disability makes the move to live on his own, and, if necessary, support should be in place to provide help where it’s needed.
Depending on the severity of an individual’s mental disability, it may be wise for him to live close to support services such as his family, social worker, or a mental illness center. Factors such as proximity to his workplace will also have to be taken into account when deciding on a location, as will his mode of transportation. For example, if an individual’s disability prevents him from driving and he relies on public transportation to travel to and from work, then he’ll need to be located somewhere he can easily access it (he may also need help with understanding how the system works, e.g. bus or train schedules, routes, and fares).
There are also the emotional aspects to living independently that need to be factored in for someone with a mental disability. Some young adults relish the freedom of living on their own after being under the watchful eye of their parents for years. However, someone with a mental disability may find it difficult to cope with not having his parents or carers in his immediate environment, particularly if he’s not co-habiting or living in some form of assisted living accommodation. And although it may be tempting for a parent or care taker to visit every day to check on how he’s doing, unless it’s absolutely vital, this should be resisted. The transition to independent living for someone with a mental disability can be difficult for both the individual making that transition and for those he’s making the break from. However, it’s important that all parties understand why the move is being made and the benefits everyone will gain from it.
There are a number of programs set up to help young adults with mental disabilities make the transition to living on their own. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration holds group meetings and provides personal counselors to help individuals apply for jobs, find accommodation, ride public transportation, and cook and clean for themselves.
It may take a little more adjustment for someone with a mental disability to make the transition to independent living but it’s not an insurmountable hurdle. In fact, almost a third of people with schizophrenia in the US live independently (approximately 28 percent), according to Surviving Schizophrenia: A Manual for Families, Patients, and Providers by E. Fuller Torrey . Living independently is a rite of passage that can be experienced by all young adults. There’s no reason why young adults with mental disabilities shouldn’t enjoy living independently in the same way other young adults do. Providing the necessary support networks are in place, this rite of passage is one that they too can experience and benefit from.
The Villa Orlando and Pasadena Villa’s Smoky Mountain Lodge are adult intensive psychiatric residential treatment centers for clients with serious mental illnesses. We also provide other individualized therapy programs, step-down residential programs, and less intensive mental health services, such as Community Residential Homes, Supportive Housing, Day Treatment Programs and Life Skills training. Pasadena Villa’s Outpatient Center in Raleigh, North Carolina offers partial hospitalization (PHP) and an intensive outpatient program (PHP). If you or someone you know may need mental health services, please complete our contact form or call us at 407-574-5190 for more information.