People struggle with mental illness all around us.
Though we may be shocked to hear the statistic that one in five will experience a mental illness in a given year or that 10 million adults in the U.S. live with some type of serious mental illness, we struggle to recognize how our personal world is touched by mental illness.
On more than one occasion driving to work, I have observed mental illness.
You may think the next line will read something about episodes of road rage or technology addictions, because yes, those are evident in the morning and evening commute. But what about the others who we may drive by but don’t really see.
Like the gaunt, shaggy-looking man crossing the street in front of your car, very clearly talking to or having an argument with someone who is not really there, while you’re just hoping he quickly disappears from your view.
Maybe you choose not to stare at the female, disheveled and carrying a dirty, ragged baby doll as she pushes an old shopping cart down the sidewalk.
I’m certain the stories of these two individuals are complex, but I’m almost equally as certain that they both likely struggle with some type of mental illness.
Because we are most often passers-by to these scenarios, they don’t impact us as significantly. They seem more like an “others” problem.
So we go about our days and activities thinking the mental illness population is somewhere else, other than in our community.
Until we go to the grocery store and observe (as I did) a somewhat dazed female putting protein bars in her pocket.
Then, as I turned to the next aisle, where she happened to once again be in front of me, I noticed her eating the protein bar and chucking the wrapper evidence on a shelf behind the cracker boxes as she quickly yet smoothly continued walking.
I decided to confront her, in a nice way, to discover that her eyes seemed spacey and distant, her movements a little fidgety, and her overall demeanor odd.
When confronted, she at first tried to act as if she didn’t know what I was talking about but then told me she was planning on paying for the bars she had eaten and proceeded to pull about three crumpled wrappers from her pocket.
I mentioned that I had seen her hide one wrapper behind the crackers, and she then said, “Oh, I did? Well I’ll go and get that one, too.”
She headed off down toward the cracker aisle. I later saw her and what I assume was her husband, checking out.
I have no idea if she paid for those protein bars or not. But, I do know that my gut tells me she probably struggles with some type of mental illness.
Her behavior could be a reflection of different things – her lack of facial expressions and emotions could even be a side effect of a medication she was taking for a mental illness. I don’t know.
But, what I do know is that we all come in contact with those who struggle with mental illness. We often just don’t realize it or really see what is going on.
I know that you could say – I see or hear about these things more than you do because of my counseling education, background and focus.
This may be true on some level, but I assure you that there are people around you who are hurting either personally or because of something occurring in their family, and you just don’t know about it yet.
Maybe this is because they want to keep things private or maybe because we’ve just not intentionally tried to get to know the person and what is going on in their life.
I’ve talked with many people who do not share what is going on in their lives because they fear how others will react or fear the judgment of friends and co-workers.
That is why I am so passionate about our churches becoming engaged in the mental health discussion.
It is not going away. And if there is anywhere in the world where hurting people should be loved on, ministered to, prayed for, offered hope and compassionately cared for in their time of need – it is the church.
Not the four walls per say, but the body of believers that are the hands and feet of Christ.
Stop, take a look around – a real look around. Do you see them? Because they see you.
Katie Swafford is director of counseling services at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. A version of this article first appeared on txb.life, a publication of the BGCT. It is used with permission.