When one thinks of mental illness, the first thing I think typically comes to mind is the sick homeless, left devastated by the ravages of their disease. It’s sad to note that, among the homeless population, a significant percentage (up to 15 percent, according to the UCSD) are mentally ill, often suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, both of which are treatable with modern medication. Worse, even if they are provided with medication, they often stop taking it when they begin feeling normal again, thus creating a terrible cycle.
The thing about these people is that, when you see them, it’s almost always the case that they’re already destitute, barely living on the streets. You never really get a picture of who these people were before their illness destroyed their lives. It seems natural to assume they’ve always lived that way, but these people were once sons and daughters. Mothers, fathers, and friends.
Which brings me to what I think was one of the most saddening things I’ve witnessed. We were in New York, waiting for the NJT to arrive so we could return to Newark Airport, when an older black man arrived. He was dressed in a suit and trench coat, a Samsonite-esque suitecase in tow, a newspaper stuffed into the front pocket, gray shot through his beard giving him a look of distinction, and a look of complete and utter confusion on his face. As I watched, he continually talked to himself, seeming to debate some issue that I couldn’t comprehend. Then, occasionally, he would stop, rubbing his chin in a thoughtful gesture, seeming to consider something before starting off again, all the while his eyes staring emptily.
It was obvious this was a man who, at one point, lived a good life. As he spoke, it seemed like he may have once been a lawyer or businessman, a salesman or accountant. He may have a family somewhere, wondering where he is. Or he may have none at all. But now, he was just a lonely man, lost in a fog of delirium.
I wonder how long it will be before he’s just another sick homeless person, dirty and starving, ranting on a street corner somewhere. Just another statistic, a stereotype, ignored and forgotten.