Bethany Yeiser shares story of mental illness, homelessness to open others' minds

'This is something I thought could never happen'

CINCINNATI -- Bethany Yeiser was an honors student at the University of Southern California 2,000 miles away from home. She was getting good grades, doing research and was well on her way to becoming a doctor.

Then something happened.

After a three-month visit to Nairobi, Kenya and Lagos, Nigeria the summer before her senior year, Yeiser became obsessed with the poverty she had seen. Her grades suffered. And just two months before she was supposed to graduate, she dropped out and became homeless.

She was embarrassed and severed contact with her family. She stayed with friends near campus when she could or slept in the university library. Eventually she started hearing voices and began sleeping outside and eating from garbage cans, just yards away from the place where she had shown such promise.

Four years to the day that Yeiser became homeless, police picked her up and took her to a psychiatric hospital. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and reunited with her parents.

Bethany Yeiser, author of "Mind Estranged." Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"This is something I thought could never happen," Yeiser told a group of homeless men at City Gospel Mission earlier this month. "I had fallen from this high point as a scholarship winner to the lowest point."

As dramatic as Yeiser's story is, though, the part about mental illness and homelessness is not all that unusual. In Hamilton County, 29 percent of all homeless people served in shelters or on the street in 2015 were identified as mentally ill, said Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness. Those people either said they were mentally ill or a shelter staff member or street outreach worker identified them as mentally ill based on their behaviors.

"That number is probably low," Finn said. "I think the shelter staff and street outreach workers are sort of reluctant to say this person is mentally ill."

Of course, most people who are homeless are not mentally ill, just as most people with mental illness are not homeless, Finn stressed.

 

 

 

Still, Yeiser hopes that by sharing her story, she can help people understand some of the factors that can contribute to homelessness. She wants to change the way people view mental illness, too.

"Schizophrenia is a brain disease," said Yeiser, who is now 34. "There is no shame in taking a medication for any illness. On medication, I reclaimed my life."

Delusions and then jail

During her presentation at City Gospel Mission, Yeiser detailed how her life changed and described the delusions she experienced after what she later learned was her psychotic break.

She thought she could raise millions of dollars to help poor people in Africa. She spent what little money she had or could borrow to fly to Thailand, England and Taiwan to try to raise money there.

"I started to truly believe that I'd be like Mother Teresa or that I was going to send money to Africa like Bill Gates," Yeiser said.

Long before the police finally took her to a mental hospital, she was jailed twice for trespassing and because of her erratic behavior.

As scary as being arrested was at first, Yeiser found she appreciated the hot meals and clean clothes she got in jail.

But even during Yeiser's most desperate times, she said, she never tried to go to a homeless shelter and never asked for help.

Bethany Yeiser speaks in front of a group about her struggles with homelessness and mental illness at City Gospel Mission. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"Often the most seriously ill of us don't want help," she told the men at City Gospel Mission. "The reason I ended up in jail was because I didn't have a sense of community. You are all here to do better, to reach for the stars, to do better in life."

The men who listened to Yeiser's presentation had questions for her about her delusions, whether she ever skipped her medication and the kind of medication that finally worked for her.

Yeiser explained that she did stop taking some of the early medications she tried because of their terrible side effects. But a doctor she met in 2008 introduced her to a new medication and explained how important it was for her to take it every day.

That medicine changed Yeiser's life, she said, and she hasn't missed a day since.

For Henry W. Wilson Jr., there were parts of Yeiser's story that felt familiar.

Anxiety, depression and then epilepsy

Wilson, who is 47, has suffered from depression and anxiety for years. But he was able to keep that under control and hold a steady job until he started having seizures several years ago.

Wilson eventually was diagnosed with epilepsy. He could no longer work for the construction company that employed him or drive a forklift or other heavy equipment. In what seemed like an instant, Wilson felt like he became a liability instead of an asset.

"I was more fearful of going around people so I basically became a hermit," Wilson said. "I only left my apartment maybe once a week, and that's if my father forced the issue."

Wilson couldn't work, couldn't get his application for disability approved and couldn't keep paying his rent.

Henry Wilson, a resident of City Gospel Mission. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"Finally my landlord said, 'You're going to have to go to a homeless shelter,'" Wilson said during an interview after Yeiser's presentation.

That was at the start of the summer, and he's been at City Gospel Mission ever since.

The fact that Wilson has other health problems that contributed to his homelessness isn't unusual either.

"About a quarter of our homeless population has a chronic health condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure," Finn said. "You never hear about homelessness as a health issue. People talk about homelessness as a mental health issue all the time. But the chronic health problems are almost as big."

Wilson said City Gospel Mission has helped him address his other health problems, too.

He has lost 83 pounds during his stay at the shelter, Wilson said, going from 315 pounds when he arrived down to 232 pounds. He has been working out at the Lord's Gym, and he's working with staff to try to get a permanent place to stay.

Yeiser's story shows how important it is to get the right help.

After being on the medication for a year and half, Yeiser decided to complete her college studies. She moved near the University of Cincinnati's campus and finished her molecular biology degree there in 2011.

She wrote a memoir called "Mind Estranged: My Journey from Schizophrenia and Homelessness to Recovery." And she regularly speaks to groups about her experience to try to help people better understand homelessness and mental illness.

"It's been very exciting to see the LGBT community step into the light of acceptance," Yeiser said in an interview. "And I hope that mentally ill people are next. We'd also like to feel a sense of belonging and not a sense of shame for who we are."

More information about Yeiser and her book is available online.

More information about City Gospel Mission and Strategies to End Homelessness, and how to help those organizations, is online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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