Just Offer Them Grace
Tragically, compassion and empathy are increasingly rare commodities today. The worst humanity has to offer has been unleashed by the decisions, public policies, and behaviors that we are all witnessing and experiencing in the midst of a global pandemic of epic proportions.
But those of us with a mental illness, and those of us who love, or have loved, someone with a mental illness, are all too familiar with the perverse inhumanity that has always lurked beneath the surface of a carefully maintained facade of decency of many in our society.
Part of my personal experience with having a severe mental illness has been that I endured years of marginalization and have had to fight tooth and nail to get the tools and support to survive, stay off the streets, and stay out of jail. Up until the last 20 years or so, the only people who encouraged me or didn’t stigmatize me were social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, fellow sufferers, and AA. Thank God that today we have SAARDA, DJ Jaffe’s Mental Illness Policy Org, The Kevin & Margaret Hines Foundation, The Treatment Advocacy Center, International Bipolar Foundation, NAMI, and many more wonderful organizations that have become pillars of advocacy and support.
One of my good friends lost her son to schizophrenia because she couldn’t get him the treatment he desperately needed, despite going bankrupt, sacrificing her job, and nearly killing herself in the process.
My paternal grandfather was committed to the state mental hospital in the early 70s for nonviolent behavior that stemmed from years of unchecked Alcoholism (probably wet brain). With no treatment or social interaction in this pitifully run facility, he wasted away, reading and chain smoking to pass the time.
Aside from these and multiple other personal anecdotes that reflect the “civilized savagery” with which our society treats those of us with a mental illness, consider that the primary fates that the most vulnerable adults among us experience (if they don’t receive the help they desperately need) are living the abject misery of homelessness or the hell of incarceration.
“Numerous studies have reported that approximately one-third of homeless persons have a serious mental illness, mostly schizophrenia or bipolar disorder -approximately 250,000 homeless persons have serious mental illnesses in the US.” (Mental Illness Policy dot Org)
“Approximately 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness. Based on the total number of inmates, this means that there are approximately 356,000 inmates with serious mental illness in jails and state prisons.” (Treatment Advocacy Center)
The fact that we as a society leave deeply vulnerable people to fend for themselves on the streets like some Social Darwinist version of The Hunger Games, or perhaps worse, lock them in cages where lack of treatment and social isolation cause their mental health to deteriorate and their suffering to deepen exponentially, exemplifies the ongoing dearth of compassion and empathy for people with a mental illness.
Let us always remember this powerful thought from William Kautz as we each strive as individuals in a broken society to offer grace, compassion, and solidarity to our brothers and sisters with a mental illness:
“So, if there is a lesson in all of this, perhaps it could be summed up with one word: Grace. When you see someone suffering with mental illness or you see parents trying their best to deal with a child who is suffering, please don’t wag your heads. Please don’t automatically assume that some evil has been committed. Just offer them grace. It won’t fix the fundamental problem, but it will show the kind of compassion and solidarity that is so often missing in a society that just doesn’t understand.”
[Note: Amazon and Barnes & Noble are selling a book I wrote after my first son died. Its title is Winter’s Grace (How Anguish and Intimacy Transform the Soul). If anyone is interested in purchasing it, all profits are going to The Snug Harbor Foundation which cares for vulnerable people in crisis. You can find the book listed under the author’s name: K. William Kautz]