How Do We Help the Mentally Ill? How About Ourselves?

Homeless Woman - Mentally IllI had a very disturbing — and ultimately sad — experience yesterday with an young mentally ill woman.

A Family Walk

I was with my sister, and we were visiting my niece and great-nephew. We were taking a walk to the park where we were going to have lunch. Now, my niece lives in very poor area with a lot of recent immigrants. There’s also a lot of drug dealing and other illegal activities going on, if you want to look carefully enough to notice.

As we walked down the sidewalk, we passed by a young woman who was focused very intently on the street. I figured she was waiting for a connection or something. So I didn’t think much about her. But as we cross the street, I noticed that the woman was now following us.

The Mentally Ill Woman

This could have been just a coincidence, but the woman was following rather closer than made me comfortable. As we crossed the bridge that went over the nearby creek, my sister decided to stop and look at the water. As we all stopped — including me with the baby in the stroller — the young woman stopped and waited uncomfortably until we continued on.

Then she continued to follow us.

At that point, I stopped and motioned, in a friendly manner, for her to go around us. As our eyes met, I could see a combination of confusion and terror. She started to move past us, but then shook her head, turned around and left in the opposite direction. She never said a word, although as she left, she seemed to be asking for permission.

The reason I asked her to go around us was that I didn’t know what was going on. Having a baby, I figured it was best to confront the situation straight on. I was pretty sure I was dealing with a mentally ill person at that point. And it is generally better, if possible, to define the reality of the situation rather than to leave it to their minds.

Helping the Mentally Ill

But it was heartbreaking. The woman was lost in most senses of the word. And even though a mentally ill person can change on a dime from nonthreatening and needy to menacing and violent, I still felt that I wanted to do something to help her.

Most people are, understandably, afraid of the mentally ill. They are unpredictable. Just the same, they are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. She not only seemed like someone who was likely to become a victim, she seemed like she had already been a victims many times before.

My Own Confusion and Fear

When we returned, she was gone. I hope that she has a caretaker and that there was just a temporary mix-up that found her confused on the street. I wish I had done more at the time. My focus was on the protection of the baby. But looking back now, it’s hard to see that this young woman wasn’t badly in need of protection, and in as much as she was capable, asking for it.

It’s hard to know what to do to help the mentally ill. Going back at least to “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” we know that when you don’t share the same reality, it can be impossible.

But all last night, her face — the confusion, the terror — haunted me. I was in a position to help her, but I didn’t — because of my own confusion and fear. There has got to be a better way for a society to work. There must be some way to encourage the best things in my personality and discourage the worst.

I feel that yesterday, the worst aspects won out without the best aspects even showing up for the fight.

4 thoughts on “How Do We Help the Mentally Ill? How About Ourselves?

  1. This makes me think of an old conservative canard, it’s been around as long as I can remember. “Conservatives believe in giving their own money to charity. Liberals believe in spending other people’s money on government programs that don’t work.”

    I won’t waste time on how obviously bunk this concept is. Or that, if you set aside church tithes, conservatives give less money to charity than liberals do. (That’s from Robert Putnam’s sociology study, “American Grace,” which Fox et.al. cited to claim conservatives are more charitable. Um, not outside church donations, they aren’t. Chapter 13, IIRC.)

    No. The real difference is conservatives do not consider human suffering to be their problem. Liberals do. Throwing some change in the Salvation Army Christmas bucket is a nice lesson to teach children, but it’s hardly anything an adult should feel noble about. They’d have been better off giving that change to the homeless guy playing saxophone on the corner.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself. You saw this person. You acknowledged her existence. It’s more than most people do. And you’ll keep up the fight for free mental-health care. Because that’s what liberals do, goddamnit. We don’t believe in Utopia. We work to reduce suffering.

    You can’t save everyone. You do what you can, when you can.

    I knew a lady who was a homeless outreach worker. She’d bust into abandoned buildings in the dead of winter, to make sure people had blankets, and hand out antipsychotic meds. After 10 years, she moved on. Should she feel guilty for being burnt out? No. She did what she could, when she could. There’s no shame in having limitations to our stores of compassion. They’re rather like nuclear reactors. It only takes a little fuel to produce great energy. But when the fuel’s not there, it’s not there.

  2. How would you have helped her? I wish I could help but most often I don’t have the skills so I can’t help anyone beyond demanding to pay more in taxes to help people.

  3. Just to be clear, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of money. (That would be easy.) I got the feeling that the woman belonged somewhere — that someone was looking for her. I felt (after our interaction) that she was like a 5-year-old who was lost. She definitely didn’t look like someone who had been living on the street. If she had been a 5-year-old, I *would* have done something because I wouldn’t have been wrestling with my own fear. And even if I had engaged more with her, I’m not sure what would have been accomplished. The obvious thing would be to contact the police, because they should know if anyone was looking for her. But these days, it seems more humane to to keep the police out of it. I don’t know. That’s the whole point of the post: I just don’t know. I wish I were better at this kind of thing. And I wish our society were too.

    • If she lives in an assisted-care facility of some kind, the staff are trained what to do when someone goes missing. They know where to look. And if they can’t find her within a set amount of time, they will call the police for help. The amount of time staff will do the looking before calling the police is established by an assessment team, including a social worker and psychologist. If she can’t cross roads safely, it’s an immediate call. If she goes AWOL often, and usually to the same spot, staff might be allowed to search by themselves for two hours first.

      In other words, if she isn’t homeless, her staff will get her home safely. I’ve done it. One guy in Santa Barbara we found standing in line at a fraternity keg party a few blocks away! 60 year old, in his bathrobe and flip-flops, waiting with his plastic cup for his turn at the beer keg! Nobody thought this was strange?

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