We were walking along the sidewalk on a busy street in Brooklyn my husband and two sons on our way home from a wedding celebration about a year and a half ago. It was early in the summer and as we walked along, enjoying the weather and recounting how much fun we’d had dancing at the party, we noticed a lady walking on the street. There was some construction along that stretch of road, and orange-and-white striped barricades were between the woman and the sidewalk. She would have to duck under them to get to a safer spot.
My husband and I watched as several cars swerved around her, and our concerns grew. We called out to her to see if she was okay, but she either couldn’t hear us though we were only a couple of yards away or she was ignoring us. We kept a close eye on her, our hearts pounding each time a car came, and then, when she reached the intersection where we were waiting for our turn to cross the street, we again inquired after her well-being.
At which point she cursed and spat at our feet.
We walked away with much of the joy of the evening gone. Had we done something wrong? Was she mentally ill? Incredibly upset? With our two boys by our side, we felt we had done all we could and now we needed to focus on getting them home and to bed.
It was not the first time nor would it be the last that my husband and I felt threatened by what we guessed was a mentally ill person. Once a man homeless and hungry tried to wedge himself between the two of us as we shared a couple of slices of pizza. Another time, a woman came at us, nearly running us off the sidewalk, in an attempt to get us to “break apart.” (At least that is what she was yelling as she charged us.) Thankfully, we didn’t have our kids with us either of those times.
Each of these encounters left me shaken and confused. Had I done something wrong? Why were these people so upset and uninhibited? Were they really mentally ill, or were they just having a bad day? And if they were mentally ill, should I have done anything to help them or to keep them from harming themselves or others?
So an article published this week on The Atlantic about whether bystanders should intervene when they identify mental illness was of particular interest to me. I hoped it would give me some sort of understanding or guidance for the next time I am confronted with someone who may be mentally ill.
And it did. I realized, for instance, that although physical and mental illnesses can both be debilitating, mental illnesses are so little understood by most people that seeing them in action causes fear, while physical illnesses are more familiar and therefore elicit more sympathy and helpful responses.
The article discusses, that in an effort to dispel that fear around mental illness, an organization called Mental Health First Aid teaches people what various mental illnesses might look like so that they can identify them and, if they are comfortable and confident enough to do so, intervene and try to get the person the appropriate kind of help. The teachers emphasize that students are not expected to save the world after completing the course, but, they hope, they will have a greater awareness and more confidence so that at the very least they can help people whom they may be close to family or friends get help, and at the most they might be able to prevent another tragedy like those we’ve heard about so much recently: Sandy Hook, Aurora, the Navy Yard, and LAX.
This all sounds so good to me, and makes so much sense. I mean, if there are more people with eyes to see, then fewer red flags will go unnoticed, right? If we know what to look for, then we’re more likely to see it. Having read the article, and realized my own ignorance in the face of mental illness, I think it was a good thing for me to have walked away from my previous encounters.
However, I have some doubts about the effectiveness of such training not in the everyday occurrences: the friends and family who are depressed or suicidal, but on the national tragedy scale: the shootings in public places by ill-minded people bent on doing harm. Not only do I think it would be extremely difficult to gauge the strength and resolve of someone who talks non-chalantly about blowing things up or killing people, because we do so much of that in our society already that it is practically noise, but also because knowing the correct course of action to take seems incredibly difficult and fraught as well.
Even if I had been trained to recognize mental illnesses and to respond appropriately, could I have known whether or not the woman who nearly ran my husband and I off the sidewalk would pull a knife on us if we had been able to identify her as mentally ill and even what type of illness she had? Or whether the homeless man would have resorted to physical blows in his desperation to get a bite of pizza?
So while education and training will surely help on some level, I’m skeptical about anybody being able to know when their actions will actually help someone with a mental illness especially a stranger or when they will just end up with spit on their shoes. It’s because of this unknowable variable that my desire to reach out to those who are in pain runs up against my desire to protect myself and my family and chances are, I’m going to walk away every time.