You’re on the subway. Perhaps on your way to your internship or to meet up with a friend for dinner.
Every now and then you pull your eyes away from the screen of your smartphone to look at the people around you, to assess how close you are to your stop, or to figure out if the person across from you is actually staring at you (they probably aren’t).
And then the relative quiet of your ride is interrupted. Not by a loud subway conductor yelling about what transfers you can make at the next stop, but by someone else.
The quiet is broken by the booming voice of someone else: a mentally ill person. They are talking to themselves, telling themselves a long narrative about events that most likely will never happen. They may try to talk to you. They may not be making any sense, and it may seem like they are talking to an invisible person.
They are asking questions: “Have you seen the lights? Have you seen them?” They may be experiencing delusions, hallucinations, psychiatric illnesses, thought disorders, or other symptoms of mental illnesses. While you are afraid that they might be dangerous, they are living a life that is extremely difficult to live.
And what do we do when this happens? When these people get on the subway and are talking to themselves, we call them “crazy”. We call them “dangerous.”
We treat these strangers as though their intentions are to harm us.
In reality, harming you is probably the last thing on their mind.
When they get off of the train, we laugh at these people. We make jokes about the particularly lofty things they’ve said. We make looks of disgust, and sometimes, we make a show of moving our seat away from the person.
In doing this, we overlook the fact that they are humans, and somehow, we bypass the notion that they have the same level of humanity as all others.
As a person who rides public transportation very often, and for extended periods of time, I see this happen regularly. A mentally ill person will get on the train, and then other people, upon hearing what they are saying, will laugh at them, sometimes directly in their face.
I often ask myself: Do other people realize that this person may have a mental illness? Do the 14-year-olds on their way to high school who are making jokes about this person realize that there is a greater explanation to the person’s behaviour?
Do the 30-year-olds, tapping away at their smartphones realize that mocking the behaviour of the person talking to themselves is just as bad as mocking the behaviour of someone without a mental illness?
Unlike other health problems, mental illness is one of the most stigmatized illnesses that a person can have. Nobody in their right mind would laugh at a person who has the flu.
People fail to see that people with mental illness are humans too. Often, we fail to realize that their illness is actually an illness, and even when we do, they’re still “crazy.”
We should not be treating people with mental illness with a lower standard of respect because they “annoy” us. When a “crazy” person gets on the subway, we should not recoil in disgust, mocking what they say. We should not call them names. We should not imitate them, as though they are a character from a play we want to reenact so we can jeer at them.
We should go about our lives, continuing to read The New York Times or Vogue, or talking to our partners about what we are going to cook for dinner.
When a person with a mental illness gets on the subway, we should show them the same level of respect that we do to our other peers. The mental illness that a person is suffering from does not negate their humanity.