I read a news story yesterday that was so disturbing it kept me awake last night. It was about an incident at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Upstate New York and involves a homeless man, some ice water and a few cruel people who had nothing better to do than bully a vulnerable man for fun.
The young man in this story stops by this Dunkin’ Donuts location often to get warm and charge his phone so he can call his mother every day to tell her goodnight. As he rested his head and waited for his phone to charge, one employee dumped a bucket of ice water on him while another videotaped it and laughed.
The homeless man’s name is Jeremy and he suffers from schizophrenia. According to news articles, his difficulties are the result of a problematic birth that caused a lack of oxygen to his brain. In addition to his mental illness, he suffers from epilepsy and a learning disability. Jeremy’s challenges are great; and while he has a supportive family, he prefers to live outside. And that’s not unusual for people challenged with mental health problems. According to www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org, 25% of the homeless population in the US suffers from a serious mental illness.
As a kid, Jeremy had dreams, just like the rest of us. When he was younger, he wanted to be an artist. News accounts report that he was bullied and picked on in school and ended up dropping out. He has given up on his dreams and continues to struggle with his mental illness, preferring to live on the streets alone.
While this incident is extremely upsetting, some good has come from it. The owners of the store have fired the two employees involved and have taken steps to work with local advocacy groups to train employees to more effectively engage with homeless people and help direct them to assistance programs in the community. Additionally, thousands of people have viewed the video or news coverage of the story, helping to raise vital awareness about issues associated with mental illness and homelessness.
But there is still so much more to be done to change the way mental illness is viewed and how people with mental health disorders are treated in our communities. And it’s up to all of us to get involved.
How to Make a Difference in Your Community
End the Stigma
One of the biggest barriers preventing people from seeking help for their mental health needs is stigma. People with serious mental illness struggle with the symptoms and disability of their disease as well as the stereotypes and prejudice that results from misconceptions about mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year; among adults with a serious mental illness, only 62.9% received mental health services in the past year.
Stigma is a symptom of the public’s general lack of awareness about mental illness. Mental health should be treated no differently than physical health. Treatments are available and mental health challenges can be managed, just like physical ailments.
Join The Conversation
We need to change the way we talk – and think – about mental illness. Start by educating yourself and others about mental health and its related disorders. Also, get comfortable talking openly about mental health – but be conscious of language and avoid using words like “crazy,” “psycho,” “nuts” and “insane” in everyday conversation. Finally, speak out against stigma and speak up when you see discrimination or bullying, like Jeremy experienced.
Advocate for Change
According to www.bevocalspeakup.com, being vocal and getting involved in your community is one of the best ways to help break down barriers that prevent people from seeking mental health treatment. The site offers 10 ways to get involved in your community, including helping someone in need, supporting legislative action and participating in events that raise awareness (to learn about other ways to advocate for mental health awareness in your community, visit www.bevocalspeakup.com).
Ultimately, the easiest way to prevent more incidents like Jeremy suffered is to be kind and show compassion for those with mental illness. We don’t always know the personal battles people fight in their daily lives. Many with mental illness often feel isolated and alone. Simply offering a kind word or a smile can make a tremendous difference.
Barbara Krusko, MA, is the Chief Development Officer at West Bergen Mental Healthcare. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.