My friend Flaco was driving east down Armitage when he spotted an enraged and drunken man rushing head-long into a pregnant woman sitting at a bus stop. Without missing a beat, he turned the car around and got in between the drunk and the young lady. Before I could ask, Flaco told me that the two were unrelated and never even met. This was not a case of domestic violence. In fact,
“I like to hit pregnant women,” the man told Flaco.
Flaco waited for the cops to show. I don’t think the woman wanted to wait that long. They carted the man away. Obviously, he was a threat to society – drunk or not.
But that incident was another in a long line that got me to thinking about mental illness, lack of access for quality care, and stigma.
Take, for instance, the public brouhaha over the arrest of homeless activists in Orlando last week. The demonstrations by Food Not Bombs are there both to feed the hungry homeless (and sheltered-but-barely who are not able to buy food and pay rent) near downtown as well as bring light to a much-neglected reality: we spend more for weapons of mass destruction than we do on “programs of social uplift” (to quote from King).
I was a bit surprised to see how many people opposed FNB and their “fame-seeking” actions. And how unhinged their classless class warfare was in the process. “Families taking their kids out to the park don’t want to see homeless men urinating in public/showing off their part in public/talking to themselves in public/shouting obscenities in public…”
Not that any of us should wish any of those on anyone. But it doesn’t happen every day, nor with every homeless person. However, the elephant carnival in the public square needs to be addressed: There is a massive disproportion of mentally ill in the homeless population since the Reagan era (and due in no small part to The Vietnam and Iraq Wars). Above all, these people are not to be blamed for the predicament they are in. That is our fault. We have the means but we refuse to offer them the service they need. They are in the streets because WE threw them there. To suggest that they shouldn’t even be served food in the park is to continue the lies that we’ve been telling ourselves for the last thirty years: We’re okay; there is nothing wrong with how we treat those with mental disabilities.
It doesn’t matter who starves as long as our conscience is not bothered.
Much more can be (and should be) said about this, but I want to try to keep the focus on mental disability survivors and stigma.
My mother moved to the Bible Belt about twenty years ago. While she was in Chicago, she was accepted in our church as family. They knew us and suffered with us through her bouts of bipolar disorder. After she moved, my brother, sister-in-law, and I kept trying to help her find a similar church. And these churches would welcome her (perhaps as a stranger, perhaps as a number, another body to fill their roles). I understand that it’s impossible to re-create family. But my mother understood something much sadder, much more real and much more immediate to her.
She would leave every church, saying that she felt guilty and unwelcome – even oppressed – by the god she encountered there.* Oddly enough (or not), it was only in the Catholic church that she felt welcomed. Maybe that has to do with Catholic social teaching. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that they recognize ostracization and empathize with being outcasts in the Bible Belt.
I think of the many runaways who leave home because their mental condition is not appreciated nor understood at home. I think of the many undiagnosed children and adults on the verge of something very dangerous. Because no one wants to admit that they or their loved ones need help. That would ostracize them. That would be crazy.
And then I think of Michelle Bachman and Rush Limbaugh and how, when I disagree with their rhetoric and their policies (or feigned policies) I say that they’re crazy.
And that’s a disservice to those who survive mental distress.
*Like it or not, fellow church-goers, we represent the god we worship. If we shun people, then our god shuns them. And I say that deliberately with small letters, because that is not the god of Jesus. Jesus – representing the God of the Bible – did not shun anyone.