Help for the mentally ill walking the streets of Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — They are around us everyday, walking the streets and neighborhoods. There are people needing help but not getting it.

"Just trying to, you know, since I am in the area it looks familiar, but I am not trying to keep it familiar. I understand I have been here. Where else can I go?"  says one  woman who  walks around the Cherokee area all day.

Neighbors say she sits in the middle of the street, sometimes even removing her clothes and relieving herself on the ground.

"I have seen her in various stages of undress too. Nobody in their right mind would sit in the middle of the street unclothed," says neighbor Jeff Moore.

Neighbors say they've called police but have been told there is little that can be done. They fear the woman will get hurt .

Debra Dillon, director of the Memphis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, says problems like these run deep.

"One of NAMI's goals is to reach out more to the community and have people be more aware of mental illness," says Dillon.

They say in many cases, when you pull back the layers, people on the streets are silently suffering from something else, mental illness.

"It's silent in the background, and it is easy to overlook the effect that has on our society," says Dillon.

The person may not want it or even realize they need help.

"Unless a person is willing to get help, you can't force them to get into treatment," says Dillon.

They can be taken in involuntarily, but only if they are a danger to themselves or others.

Melinda Hardin knows the hardship of recognizing mental illness and getting help. Her sister suffered from it and ultimately died.

"Unless a family member is learned or trained or gets information about what something is or what it looks like, we don't depict it as a negative behavior or an illness," says Hardin.

She says erasing the stigma is key.

"What those families need are support, information and resources to begin to put together what is happening, why it's happening, and how we can put supports in place," says Hardin.

NAMI supports and educates families of the mentally ill, but over the last 20 years the number of mental health centers have dwindled and resources have become limited.

"It's more difficult for people with no insurance to get help," says Hardin.

A push is underway to level the playing field with a mental illness parity law.

"It would require the insurance companies to require the same level of service for mental illness as they provide for other physical illnesses," says Dillon. "It's in our interest as a society to want to help improve the quality of life of those individuals."

Hardin applauds the Cherokee neighbors trying to help the woman in need,  even though it's proving difficult since so far she hasn't harmed herself or anyone else.

"They said something is wrong. We need to help this person, and that restores what we believe in NAMI and that is hope. That there is hope and there is healing available," says Hardin.

There are private hospitals that help those with mental health issues. The state-run facility, Memphis Mental Health Institute, also contracts with providers.

Here is an important number that you can call, if you know anyone experiencing a mental health crisis: Call the CRISIS hotline at 855-CRISIS-1.  That's 855-274-7471.

NAMI Memphis is also available to help loved ones of the mentally ill. You can reach them at 901-725-0305.