Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Last week, my dad and I were talking about the uproar about someone letting her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone. “I don't know,” my suburban father hedged, “Aren't there a lot of crazies on the subway?”

Meaning people who mutter to themselves? Occasionally. Disheveled people? Definitely. Drunk people? Sometimes. People who strike up unwanted conversations with strangers? Sure. Violent? I did see two people get on a shoving match on a subway car one time, but both of them appeared willing participants.

But dangerous to people who are minding their own business? No. There may be other dangers on a subway – theft, sexual harassment – but I don't think mental illness has anything to do with that.

I've heard similar reactions to my landlord situation. My landlord is paranoid, and my housemates and I are the objects of her paranoia. She believes we're practicing witchcraft against her and poisoning her with electromagnetic radiation. This results in her doing things like banging on our door at odd hours, duct taping our porch door shut, and writing us letters in all caps.

The reaction from our friends: “This is beyond entertaining, and you need to get out of there.” “It is almost as crazy as she is to stay there.” “Maybe you could have her committed!”

There's a reason she hasn't been committed: she hasn't done anything dangerous. Annoying, yes. In breach of our lease, yes. But not dangerous. And people don't seem to understand that distinction.

People who have lost touch with reality are not out to get you. If anything, they might think you're out to get them. Working on the psych ward, I have not met a single patient who would hurt a stranger. Maybe the nurse who's giving them meds, maybe an ex-boyfriend, maybe themselves, but not a stranger.

1 comment:

Hollis said...

Agreed, Julia. I run a crisis hotline and mobile crisis team, and we're the front line for "dealing with crazies" in our county. I use quotation marks because that's what people seem to think we're for.

It's astonishing to see how many people think that psych wards can and should be used for locking people up and throwing away the key. Got a neighbor who's unpleasant? Send 'em to the psych ward! People have a hard time grasping the fact that being strange is permitted under the law, and that, heck, you can be completely flipping out-of-touch with reality and still be fully within your legal rights. There's no law against having severe mental illness.

I ended up building a short training program to explain involuntary hospitalization in our county; it's here: www.reachouthotline.org/assets/invol/ . It was my attempt to explain how and why people *can* be hospitalized involuntarily. Imminent risk of harm is part of the criteria in NY, and I bet MA is similar.

I agree that your landlord sounds like a strong candidate for diagnosis, but having her hospitalized? Not possible given the current behaviors.

That said, I empathize and really wish I could help.