Judgment and People with Mental Illness

I was walking to the hospital the other day to observe a psychiatrist when I noticed a man in a wheelchair sitting on the corner of the intersection. He was wearing the hospital gown and had a number of medical gear attached to his body. I immediately thought that this man had some sort of mental illness and that he had escaped from the hospital. So I walked to the front desk and told the receptionist about the man. He made a phone call and gestured that it was going to be taken care of.

I decided to walk back toward the man to make sure he was going to be alright. But I kept my distance. In fact, I crossed the street so I could see him while being quite far away. The reason why I didn't approach him was because I didn't want to talk to someone with a mental illness.

After a minute or two, I started thinking about how I wanted to avoid him, even though I didn't really consider him to be a threat. This man seemed to be about my age, but he was in a wheelchair, and he had a cast on his foot.

Since I didn't want to treat him like he had a stigma, I decided to talk to him. It turns out that this man hadn't escaped from the hospital but rather that the nurses had let him out, because he wanted to get some fresh air and he wanted to beg. He told me that he had to have one of his toes removed, which is why he was wearing the cast, and that prior to the surgery, he had been bedridden for months.

We talked about a number of things in the 10 minutes we spoke. I asked him about a tattoo he had on his neck. He said it was his nephew's name. He then pointed to another one of his niece's name.

I asked him if he had anyone to come pick him up. He said no.

Then he asked me for money, so I gave him 5 bucks. (I've noticed that it's much easier to give someone money after you connect with them, probably because connecting with someone humanizes them.)

He was very grateful and offered to buy me lunch in the future. I said it was generous of him but that it was unnecessary.

What this experience shows is that I don't want to talk to people with mental illness, and that I'm quick to judge someone as having such a condition, if I observe that they behave oddly. This suggests that I need to withhold my judgment.

Old Man in a Wheelchair

A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting at a traffic light when I noticed this old man in a wheelchair having trouble getting off a bus. It was the end of my day and I had no further obligations, so I decided to see if he needed some help.

I pulled my car over to the side, walked up to him, and asked him if he wanted me to help him get home. He said, “Yes.” I asked him if he knew where he lived. He said, “Yes.” He lived only a few blocks away from me.

So I pushed him across the main street and bid him farewell, because we were only a couple of blocks away from his apartment. He thanked me and offered to say a Catholic prayer.

After I drove back and parked my car, I decided to return to where I had left him, because I wasn't sure if he was going to get home safely. I offered to push him all the way to his apartment, and he accepted.

While pushing him, I noticed that his wheelchair didn’t have footrests. I asked him why and he said that someone had stolen them.

I learned some things about the man while we talked. I learned that he was 71, that he recently had cataract surgery, and that he recently needed to be resuscitated. By connecting this information with the information I gathered through observation, I concluded that he had just returned from the hospital.

After pushing him into the lobby of his apartment building, I again bid farewell and he again offered to say a Catholic prayer.

This experience left an impression on me for a few reasons.

First, I was extremely disappointed and disheartened to hear that people steal parts of wheelchairs.

Second, this man reminded me of my dad. My dad is almost 71 and also recently had cataract surgery. It made me think that if my dad were to have an accident, he could easily end up like this man, who seemed at least 10 years older than what he really was.

And third, it was depressing to know that nobody picked him up from the hospital. I can only assume that he was also there by himself. How lonely of an existence it must be to have no one by your side in what may be your last moments of life.

A Confession

A number of years ago, I was walking at the beach with a couple of friends of mine. The weather was perfect, as it frequently is in southern California. The sun was shining, the temperature was about 75 degrees, and the air was dry. Everyone around me seemed to be living a relaxed life. People were chatting, eating ice cream, and doing beach activities. I suspect when people imagine life in Los Angeles, that’s what they picture.

Unfortunately, like every big city, there are many of those who live in poverty. Homeless people are everywhere, including the beach. So I wasn’t at all surprised when I noticed, to my left, a homeless person sleeping on the grass with a blanket over their head and torso. It was a common scene, for sure—a poor person ignored and avoided by the rich, their proximity to the ground reflecting their social status. I’m so used to seeing homeless people that I would’ve entirely forgotten about this person, if it hadn’t been for the fact that their feet were absolutely disgusting. I mean they looked rotten. For a brief moment, I thought to myself that this person might have been dead.

But I didn't do anything.

By the time the thought had cemented into my mind, I might have been half a block away. So I could’ve easily gone back to check up on this person.

But I didn’t.

I just kept walking and chatting with my friends.

Sometimes I watch these social experiment videos on YouTube, where they have hidden cameras to record how people react to certain situations. One experiment featured two actors, one dressed as a nonhomeless person and the other as a homeless person. And the goal was to see if people would check up on them after they pretended to collapse on the sidewalk near an intersection. The results were what you would've expected.

When I watch experiments like that, I like to tell myself that if I’d been a civilian in that video, I would’ve done the right thing, that I wouldn’t have been like almost everyone else, that I wouldn’t have ignored suffering right in front of my face.

But I am like almost everyone else.

When I think back on that day at the beach, I wonder if that was one of those social experiments. I wonder if somewhere on the internet, there is a video of me walking by what I thought could have been a corpse.