Today, I was meeting a fellow member of Daily Kos for the first time. The location: Busboys and Poets, a liberal restaurant and cultural community center in Washington D.C. While waiting for her to arrive, I had an experience I'll never forget.
I stood outside the restaurant and saw a young, African American man pass by me, carrying a grocery bag. His whole body was twitching and he was gesticulating and talking to people who weren't there. He seemed confused and disturbed -- not in a threatening way, but almost like an elderly person with Alzheimer's who was lost in a once-familiar neighborhood.
For a full 30 minutes, this man walked back and forth across the same intersection. Sometimes he walked into the street when the light was red, and cars had to stop in front of him as he lurched his body jerkily in different directions, seemingly unaware of where he was, where he was going, or what was going on around him. It seemed like he might be having epileptic seizures. Other times, he mumbled repeated, unintelligible phrases to himself over and over again and seemed to be arguing with himself or an unseen entity. Perhaps he had schizophrenia.
I must have watched hundreds of people walk past this man, who was obviously in distress. All of them looked down, averting their eyes. Most of them gazed intently into their smartphones which were convenient distractions from a human being they didn't wish to see.
Eventually I couldn't bear it anymore. Somebody needed to do something; somebody at least needed to acknowledge that this man existed and to show him that somebody cared enough to offer help. Perhaps he needed urgent medical attention (frankly I think he did). I approached him, looked him in the eye, and said, "Excuse me, sir, do you need any help?"
He mumbled "no, I don't need nothin'." And he continued his frantic, irregular pacing back and forth across the intersection, the wild gesticulation of his arms, his whole body occasionally twitching spasmodically, and the constant mumbling which periodically rose in volume and could not be ignored.
Eventually he walked away -- perhaps regaining some of his faculties, at least for a while -- and I never saw him again.
What remained with me was the utter disregard of this man by so many people who encountered him, or made sure they didn't encounter him although they passed right by him. The people ambling along with their gourmet coffees; the ever-present downward gaze into the "devices" that rule our modern lives.
It was such a pathetic display of inhumanity that I found myself crying, right there on the street, in front of a liberal restaurant and community gathering place. Nobody noticed me crying either.
We are living in a profoundly sick society. The mentally ill man on the street was sick indeed, but there are those who are far sicker -- for the sickness is in their souls. We, as a society, too often allow the mentally ill to be ignored, untreated, and condemned to a life of hopelessness and homelessness.
I am a white, privileged son of a middle class family. I have gone through severe depression and needed mental health care, so I know something of what it's like to face the stigma of mental illness, the fear and the social isolation that tends to come with it. Fortunately, I have never experienced mental problems anywhere near as severe as what the young black gentleman outside Busboys and Poets was going through today. But to be quite honest, he looked like he could have been any ordinary 20-something American. He could have been a college student at one of the universities in Washington D.C. He was not a stereotypical homeless bum.
But because of the attitudes and policies of our society, this young man could become a homeless bum, quite easily in fact. Perhaps he could not afford to see a psychiatrist. Perhaps he could not afford his medication. Perhaps his family is unable to help him, or maybe he doesn't have a family at all.
When you have a full-blown mental breakdown in modern-day America, does anyone care? Does society offer help, or avert its gaze?
Too often, it's the latter -- unless, perhaps, you're part of the privileged class of people. Even then, there were not enough beds in the psychiatric hospital for the son of Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds.
I would like to think this is going to change, but it seems that things are moving in the opposite direction. Today, in America, if you are unable to work for a few months because of a mental illness, that becomes a resume gap that will likely condemn you to long-term unemployment. Without money from a job, you will not be able to afford mental health care. So it can become a vicious cycle. And once trapped in that downward spiral, door after door closes to you, and eyes close as people pass by you in life.
I think we avert our eyes because, deep down, we all know that it could happen to anyone -- even ourselves. And because we have created such a cruel, inhumane culture that discards and ignores people with problems, we are terrified that one day it could be us. So we prefer not to think about it, hoping that by ignoring the presence of mentally ill people among us, they will somehow become less people and more of an impersonal distraction -- like flies buzzing around our heads.
Understandable, maybe. But we can do better. We must. Because none of us ever knows when our status will be reduced to that of an insect in society's eyes. The lucky will escape that fate, but let's not take our chances. Let's build a society where there is always enough help available for those who need it, and where an encounter with mental illness -- or physical illness, or job loss, or any kind of bad luck in life -- doesn't have to be a life sentence of being disregarded as unworthy of consideration.
Updated below the fold.
UPDATE: Thank you to the Daily Kos editors for featuring this article in Community Spotlight. I'm glad to see that my diary has sparked some excellent discussion. I want to acknowledge and address a few points made by commenters.
1. People are ignoring the man because they don't know what to do, not because they're heartless. Probably true in most cases. My intention was not to judge people's moral character, although I suppose the diary may have come across that way. But I do think society as a whole is somewhat heartless in its treatment (or lack thereof) of the mentally ill. And in the case of a man who is repeatedly walking out into traffic, I think somebody does need to check and see if he needs/wants help, because it could be an urgent medical issue going on, such as a stroke, producing delirium. If nobody does anything in such a case, the man could be struck by a car or he could cause a traffic accident.
2. Some people should not try to interact with people behaving erratically (e.g. petite women, people who themselves have mental issues such as PTSD, etc.). Yes, I completely agree. Interacting with mentally ill men on the street is not for everyone; perhaps it's not for most people. I chose to talk to him because I am young, healthy, male, relatively tall, and have no dependents (so if he assaulted and killed me, nobody would be left without a father). I also happen to be an ordained minister and consider attempting to help people in need to be an aspect of my purpose in life. Furthermore, I have a friend who has suffered with schizophrenia, and I know that when his illness gets acute, he does need people to try to persuade him to seek treatment; in fact, people's intervention has saved him from being incarcerated.
3. We have to respect the freedom of the mentally ill to refuse treatment. I have mixed feelings about this one. I can see the argument for that, but I can also see that in some cases, untreated mentally ill people become a danger to themselves and others. I tend to think society has gone too far in the direction of leaving the mentally ill to fend for themselves, because of an ideological doctrine of freedom. Although I believe in most cases the mentally ill should not be forced to take medications or be confined in a psychiatric hospital, I think there may be some cases where that would be appropriate. Tragically, many mentally ill people who don't receive or who refuse treatment end up committing crimes and enter the prison system, which is not the place where they should be. One commenter shared a heartbreaking diary on this subject, My Daughter Sleeps in Jail Tonight.