Amanda, a young woman in her early 20s, had been struggling with severe mental illness for years when she found herself living amongst the over 66,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. Feeling invisible, ashamed and worthless, Amanda could not see a way out and would have easily fallen through the cracks had it not been for Mark Laita and Lima Jevremovic.
Discovered on Laita’s Youtube channel, Soft White Underbelly, after being interviewed, public concern for Amanda’s wellbeing began to catapult. Over several months and a few interviews, Amanda’s condition was deteriorating at an alarming rate, with significant weight loss and a decline in her ability to speak. On his channel, Laita details in several videos how it was routine for him to find Amanda intoxicated, bruised, and naked from the waist down. Prior to intervention by Jevremovic, a mental health startup founder, Amanda had endured several attacks where she had been violently beaten and raped which resulted in a disfigurement of her face and a loss of a handful of teeth.
To date, there have been growing concerns regarding an increase in sexual violence and rapes against women experiencing homelessness in America. In addition, drug overdoses continue to be a major cause of death among the homeless population, which is growing at an alarming rate. A review of 219 adult patients of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) who died of drug overdose between 2003-2008 reveals eighty-one percent of overdose deaths involved opioids and 40% involved multiple drugs. Of those deaths, 61% of overdose deaths involved individuals suffering from a clinically diagnosed psychiatric illness.
The failures of the mental health care industry are deep running and far reaching. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) is a federal law that was designed to deter group health plans and health insurance issuers that provide mental health or substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefits from imposing less favorable benefit limitations on those benefits than on physical health benefits. Jevremovic says, “the homelessness crisis will continue to escalate unless something drastic is done to revamp our mental healthcare system. There’s a very high cost to sustained long term treatment and insurance coverage is insufficient; insurance does not treat mental illness like physical illness, regardless of MHPAEA because they are not incentivized to. That’s why I started AURA, to help give a facelift to the system and raise the standard of care to grant access to the highest quality treatment on a grander scale.” She created a petition that has now gained more than 6000 signatures with a call to action and a plan to troubleshoot the mental health crisis at hand. You can find the petition here if you’d like to read more on the details. Furthermore, 42% of Americans see cost and poor insurance coverage as the top barriers for accessing mental health care, whereas 25% of Americans report having to choose between getting mental health treatment and paying for daily necessities.
In Amanda’s case, her mental state had declined so significantly that she was denied care from several hospitals and clinics prior to Jevermovic working to help her access residential care. Her family support consists only of her father, Larry, a disabled veteran living in Veterans Affairs (VA) housing—which alarmingly happens to be located on Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row. Larry told us, “Amanda had seven short term stays in residential rehab centers, four of which were 5150 holds in psychiatric hospitals. She began experiencing an onset of mental illness symptoms, when she was 19 years old but the resources she needed were not available for her. I was unable to navigate the resources at the VA and could not use them to help my daughter.” The lack of accessibility to care and failure when she attempted to do better ultimately resulted in her giving up on herself. Larry tearfully described his struggle and failed attempts to get Amanda coverage under his Tricare health plan through the VA so that he could support long-term mental health treatment for Amanda’s care but was unsuccessful; “Everytime she would be released from a short term stay at rehab, I chased her. I chased her on a daily basis to care for her and make sure she ate. It became my full time job to find her.”
Amanda’s story continues to be documented on Soft White Underbelly with the purpose of detailing how a young homeless woman whom the system had given up on, who had given up on herself, is making a full transformation and committing to a healthy recovery. Jevremovic hopes that by providing a comprehensive narrative of how Amanda is being saved, these methods of care will be adopted on a wide scale to reform mental healthcare and homlessness across the nation. Lima’s team at AURA donated their technology to help the cause and monitor Amanda’s progress while providing enhanced therapeutic options through telehealth and Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) for the trauma she faced while homeless. Relapse being a key factor Jevremovic is working to reduce, Larry recounts the most difficult times in his life as something he prays he never has to experience again; “Seeing my baby on the street without safety or welfare, beat up, bruised, with no clothing, in total submission to the streets is a pain no one can ever comprehend unless they’ve experienced it as a parent.” When asked about the help Jevremovic has offered to the family, he told us, “The support Lima has provided for us is unbelievable. I prayed. I thank God that somebody came. But it’s not over because I see so many Amandas everyday and all I can do is pray for them.” I think it’s safe to say, Amanda doesn’t feel invisible anymore.