This past week, my work had a Staff Development Day. A cornerstone of the day of meetings was discussing customers with mental illnesses, first from a mental health professional’s perspective and then from the head of our security department, M. The mental health professional’s presentation was very good, detailing common indicators that someone has a serious mental illness/is about to have a breakdown, giving us contact information so that we could call someone to come help them, and giving us tips on how to make people more comfortable. Her focus was primarily on people with mental illnesses or addictions who are homeless (25% of homeless people have a mental illness), but the information was applicable to other people too. Overall, I really enjoyed her talk.
Then came M.
Okay, so that sounds ominous already, but I do want to stress before I go on that I like M, I appreciate what she and her team do to help us, and much of her talk was helpful, reassuring, and even funny. M really wants to make sure that all staff feel safe and know how to deal with aggressive, hateful, and dangerous customers. She wants to take care of us.
The problem came when she opened her talk by saying, “Okay, you’ve heard the white side of the situation, now here the black,” letting us know that she was going to talk about people with mental illnesses and addictions in a way that wouldn’t be compassionate. She then informed us that she’d seen “these people” kill before and that we shouldn’t fall into their “agenda” by engaging with them.
If you know anything about people with mental illnesses, you know how wrong she is. As I’ve said in previous posts, people with mental illnesses are not known for being violent, and they are responsible for less than 5% of all violent crimes. So, yes, in M’s time as a police officer, she might have seen someone with a mental illness hurt or even kill someone – but that is a rare occurrence.
It’s also completely untrue that people with mental illnesses have an “agenda” – especially one that involves harming, belittling, discomfiting, or inconveniencing someone else. When it comes to symptoms and traits of their mental illness, people do not have much control. They are often not aware that they’re violating someone’s personal space, behaving inappropriately, or acting in an aggressive manner. Yes, people with mental illnesses can be responsible for changing their behavior, but they first have to be informed that it needs to change and, more importantly, how to change it. Many people with mental illnesses simply never received proper modeling on how to behave, which resulted in them legitimately not knowing how to behave. If they’re going to change, they need help. The problem is compounded if they’re homeless or addicted because they have fewer support networks and more chemicals in their bodies damaging them. So, even if a homeless person, person with a mental illness, or person with an addiction is behaving in a dangerous manner, that does not mean they are doing it on purpose.
As M continued to talk, it became obvious that she wasn’t really talking about people with mental illnesses – she was talking about assholes. Every person that’s worked in retail/libraries/with people knows that some people are just assholes. They come in angry, they find fault with everything you do, they touch you and make inappropriate comments, and they mess up inventory. Sometimes they’ll stick to one person, making that person dread coming in because Asshole McGee will be there every Tuesday with their fish breath, mouth breathing, kneading of your shoulder, and constant demands for a date/your phone number/your Facebook page. Or Momma Let-Me-Speak-to-the-Manager will refuse to speak to anyone but you and then demand you wipe out all of her fines and only speak in a tone audible from the other side of the building. These people can be dangerous, and they absolutely should not be engaged, coddled, or confronted – but they more than likely don’t have a mental illness (after all, only 18% of Americans do).
We need to understand the difference between assholes and people with mental illnesses. We need to stop labeling everyone who does something we don’t like “crazy.” We need to stop thinking that having a mental illness means you’re a violent criminal. Refusing to do so only further stigmatizes, marginalizes, and harms people with mental illnesses. Their lives are difficult enough already, especially if they are also homeless or have an addiction, and your condemnation does no good. So break that mental pattern, arm yourself with facts (not anecdotes), and be compassionate. It’s the least that you can do.