Mental health problems can be mysterious. One in five people in the United States has a mental illness and less than half get treatment. Why? Because the stigma attached to mental health issues frequently generate assumptions and fear and often lead to isolation and discrimination. The Bloggers for Movember, led by Le Clown and his partners Becca, Emily, Jen,Christine and Madame Weebles, strive to promote awareness of men’s health issues, including mental illness. Awareness is the beginning of understanding.
I started working in downtown Seattle 10 years ago. At the time I lived across the lake on the “eastside”, a once-quiet rural oasis that has rapidly become the playground of the rich; fueled by an explosion of microsoftees building mansions, driving lamborghinis, and raising arrogance awareness. Growing up on the eastside, I lived in what I thought was utopia. The living was easy. I avoided Seattle; it was dirty and dangerous. Seattle “undesirables” that found their way to the eastside generated 911 calls and were quickly bused back downtown. At age 45 I was tentative about working downtown.
I rode the bus every morning across the bridge and into the city. I looked out of the steamy windows and saw lumps of people sleeping under generic blankets in shop entry’s and under freeway ramps and any cover from the persistent rain. I was amazed at the number of people who did this. In the evening crossing the bridge to the east I would marvel at familiar waterfront mansions and the new arrival, the Gates’ castle, looming above the others.
I made friends with new coworkers. We walked to coffee and lunch in Pioneer Square regularly. I began to recognize the people of the streets. Spring became summer and looks of sad desperation seemed to multiply. Crackheads were easy to recognize with their sunken faces and missing teeth. Near the train station clever swindlers holding battered briefcases as props pleaded for the last dollar to get them to Portland. I saw them later in a corner store buying malt liquor and lotto tickets. I hardened my facial expression and perfected my “don’t fuck with me” walk. I wrote in my journal that I never wanted to become desensitized to the unfortunate collection of homeless and crackheads and crazies that I encountered every day. But I did.
There was one guy that I saw every week or so. I’ve seen many more like him but he stuck in my head. He was loud and jerky and scary and had constant arguments with auditory hallucinations. With a growly voice he yelled obscenities and racial slurs at anyone in his vicinity. Tourists were terrified. He made children cry. People gave him a wide berth…and then they chuckled about him when he turned the corner…I did too.
During a major life transition I moved to an apartment downtown just above the Pike Place Market. I immersed myself in the city culture and became a city dweller. I saw more and more people that were disconnected from the world. The contrast of history and beauty and derelicts was pungent and sharp.
Then one day my perception changed. There is a small store in the building I worked in. One morning I went inside just after they opened. A few minutes later I heard him come through the door. I looked over at the low growl and saw he was between me and the exit. Then I witnessed something extraordinary. The shop owner had gathered some coffee and snacks and approached him. “How are you feeling today Terry?” he softly said. No words, just grunting came out of Terry’s mouth. The one-sided conversation continued only for a moment and then Terry left with his gift of food and drink, screaming down the sidewalk.
He has a name. And a friend. He is a human being named Terry.
At that moment I remembered my words written years before about desensitizing. The act of compassion by the shop owner opened my eyes to the human element of Terry, formerly that crazy fucker I only avoided and laughed at.
Without a doubt Terry needs help. When I saw the shop owner acknowledging Terry and witnessed the rapport they had, I felt ashamed. I was ashamed of laughing at Terry. I was ashamed of never thinking of Terry as a human being.
In my comfortable and privileged world I’ve done time with depression and anxiety. I’ve seen counselors and taken anti-depressants and anxiety medications and they helped me. I’m not embarrassed about that but I am aware of how people can treat you when they find out. Mental illness, whether mild or debilitating, is often treatable; but still prevalent today is the notion that a man that needs assistance coping is somehow less of a man. Even though that’s obvious bullshit, the potential reduction of perceived masculinity keeps many men from seeking help (and in some warped, fucked-up way, it’s also what keeps many from submitting to a simple prostate examination that could save their life).
What can we do? We can help change the stigma associated with mental illness by educating ourselves and talking about it. We can stop dehumanizing people that are different than us. We can help change attitudes. Without understanding, there is fear. And that’s the difference between acceptance and rejection. Understanding and acceptance opens the door to early treatment.
In the case of Terry, I can change the way I act when our paths cross. I’m not a counselor or a mental worker so I can’t offer medical help but I can offer acknowledgment of his existence. I can stop being like most others walking by that avert their eyes and put up a force-field. I can try to make eye-contact and reach out with a “hello Terry”, or a “how’s it going man?” I haven’t seen him for a year or so but when I do, I’ll say hello. It’s the least I can do.