It should come as no surprise to anyone reading that I am mentally ill. Depression, and ADHD I've been diagnosed with. Asperger's I'd argue isn't actually a mental illness but simply me occupying a different spot on a spectrum, a spectrum on which all human beings can be classed, than most people. Others occupying a similar position argue that it is a mental illness and long for a cure. There are some other things that might exist as well but in small enough amounts not to merit a diagnosis (then again that was the case with ADHD until the depression got out of its way.)
So I'm sort of "Mentally Ill Person Ahoy!"
And yet, at the same time, I can be just as freaked out by other mentally ill people as anyone else.
For example, today in one of my classes, while we were discussing sophists and rhetoric and a speech by a sophist in defense of Helen of Troy made just because he felt like making such a speech, the person next to me stood up and said that she had had enough and was leaving, she believed that it was clear that the teacher was making less than complementary references to her as a sort of undertow to her discussion A hidden meaning just below the surface, at first she was adamant on this point and began to pack up her stuff, the teacher repeated several times that she (the teacher) had been doing no such thing.
The student asked for reassurance multiple times, something like, "You're really not?" repeatedly. To which the teacher repeatedly said, "I'm not."
Then the student, having been calmed, sat down. Let me remind you, right next to me.
And I was disturbed for the rest of the class. After she left at the end of the class, still disturbed. A feeling somewhere in my gut of deep unease in a place that I used to call my stomach until I learned that that's not actually where one's stomach is. I don't think it went away until I was out of the building.
Was there any reason to believe that she was dangerous? No. In fact by demonstrating that she was (probably) mentally ill she placed herself in a category that I've always been told is less likely to do violence than the population at large.
I was none the less very disturbed.
As were other members of the class.
In fact I worry that if she thought she was being singled out beforehand people's reactions to her afterward might have confirmed that in her mind, because (however irrational such feelings may be) she was suddenly the scary person in the room.
I would have been more comfortable if she hadn't been talked down and had stormed off believing that the teacher was sending secret, and insulting, messages her way. I wasn't the only one. Is this uncharitable on my part? Absolutely. Were I a Christian there are any number of Bible verses you could slam me with to prove that I'm a horrible person for feeling that way. I'd hazard a guess that other religions have similar prohibitions against putting your comfort over another person's well being in your manner of viewing the world.
It was clear that she was in a world the rest of us didn't occupy hearing things, or at least interpreting things, the rest of us couldn't, and that break from what I'm going to hope was reality was downright disturbing.
And it is interactions such as these that perhaps color people's beliefs about mental illness. Not the statistics, not the reality of the situation, not the fact that she is presumably a normal person most of the time and this break from reality could likely have been prevented with appropriate care just as a hairline fracture can be prevented from becoming a much worse break in the bone if it's recognized and treated while still a hairline fracture. Not the reality, but the feeling in ones gut. The discomfort, the unease, the deep-felt belief that something very, very wrong just happened.
And that's assuming that people have any encounters with mental illness that they recognize as mental illness in the first place. Otherwise they're just bombarded with the news people saying that every heinous act or belief is "crazy" or "insane".
But as human beings I think we need to be able to rise above gut reactions or abuses of language. The girl sitting next to me in class disturbed me greatly, but that is no reason that I shouldn't wish her well and speak out in favor of her and all like her getting help. That is no reason I shouldn't vote in her best interest whenever it is in my power to do so.
Even though I hear terms for mental illness used in the news to describe everything from the ill advised to the downright evil that doesn't mean that I should ever take my eyes off the fact that the news stories in which these terms are used are almost (but not quite) always about this misdeeds of sane people. And, it must be added, doesn't mean that I shouldn't flat out reject any proposed solution that ignores the actual problem (sane people do bad things) and instead tries to shift the focus onto mental illness.
When someone has a break from reality, as the person next to me did today, it is downright disturbing and can result in an unpleasant visceral reaction. But that doesn't change the fact that the only real problem is that she's not getting the medical care she needs to not misinterpret ordinary classroom talk as coded attacks. It also doesn't change the fact that, if left untreated, she would almost certainly be able to make a better contribution to society than I would if left untreated.
My mental illnesses generally don't draw attention to themselves or me. Without treatment I become the invisible person, the one you're vaguely aware is there but don't remember much about. And that's assuming I'm able to show up in the first place. I don't really know the girl I was sitting next to, I pay attention to class in class and don't tend to make much small talk before or after so my classmates remain largely unknown to me, but my best guess is that even with the occasional bout of paranoia she's still able to accomplish more than me when not treated. I assume she's not treated now, but even if this semester has been her on good treatment, I still think that she'd do better than me in the absence of treatment for the both of us.
Similarly for the person who doesn't know anyone with a mental illness... well first off they're almost certainly wrong. They probably know multiple people with mental illnesses, they're just unaware that those people have them. But second, it's important for them to not let themselves be confused about where the problem lies when the sensationalist non-fact-checking thing that the news has become reports anything as crazy or insane or any other synonym for mental illness. It's important to remember that the vast majority of the time the problem is sane people misbehaving and react accordingly whenever someone suggests that the solution to the problem of sane people misbehaving is to restrict the freedoms or invade the privacy of the mentally ill.