Why Seattle Can’t Embrace Mental Illness

Alright, this is something that I’m particularly ashamed of so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to talk about it, but with the holidays coming up I guess I’ll go there.

Most folks in the LGBT community will, at least once in their life, have a casual conversation with someone who doesn’t know they’re gay where the other person refers to being gay or a gay person in a derogatory way.

The sensation is like being kicked in the chest, strangers are passing judgment on you without even realizing it.

It is not uncommon for people with mental illness to face the same situation. Seattle has a pretty openly gay community, so I feel it would be safe to say that I’ve had this happen to me more often surrounding the topic of mental illness.

How is a city that so openly embraces the LGBT community so scrutinizing of mental illness? I mean, is it so hard to embrace a group of people with this kind of disability?

The answers is yes, it is incredibly hard for Seattle to be supportive of the mental health of the community because of the huge homeless population living with mental illness.

If there is one thing you can’t avoid seeing in Seattle, it is homelessness. Homeless people are everywhere, and if it was just people holding signs or pan handling I don’t think people would have as much of a problem with it. But they aren’t. Many of these people will shout or scream uncontrollably for no apparent reason, many of them can be seen walking around talking to themselves, and they sometimes say or do extremely inappropriate things in front of people passing by.

I have seen many of these people self medicating with alcohol, heroin, or crack. And when I say I’ve seen it, no fooling, I’ve seen it.

When I first moved to Seattle I was scared of many of these people. I was a 20 year old girl living in the city (downtown) for the first time in one of the seediest areas of Seattle. After a while they became part of my routine, and something felt amiss if screaming lady, Jack Kerouac guy, or shuffling man weren’t around. They were my neighbors, and even if they kept me awake all night yelling or scared my friends I didn’t mind so much, once I got to know them a little bit.

There is a huge group of people in this city that want to keep these people away from the tourists because they’re “bad for business”. At the same time, mental health funding for our state keeps getting cut, so most of these people literally have no place to go to get any sort of treatment.

And here is the shameful part, locally most people just refer to them as the crazies.

As in, “I was walking down by the waterfront and the crazies threw a beer bottle at me.”

Or, “The man next to me on the bus peed his pants. F****** crazies!”

These people are all looked on as second class citizens, and you’d be amazed how often this group comes up in conversation. They play a big part in everything that goes on in Seattle, but these conversations are almost never, “we need to help with medical treatment,” they are those derogatory conversations.

Up until recently I admit (quite awfully) I’ve always just called them the crazies too. It is part of the culture here, they’d become part of my life, but even to say that I’ve used it as a term of endearment doesn’t change the fact that I’ve said it.

Recently these little, “innocent” derogatory statements that people make to me about these people, well it feels like getting kicked in the chest.

I feel empathy for them because

I have been homeless,

I live with mental illness,

and like them the state cut the funding that was allowing me to get medical treatment. 

What gets me the most is that I don’t see any change in the foreseeable future. Many of these people have been living on the street the entire time I have been living here, 5 or 6 years.

These people have become the scapegoat for many violent crimes in Seattle as well. The attitude seems to be that anytime there is a violent crime that happens because someone with mental illness isn’t being treated properly there is no shock. No uproar. Just a simple statement that, “these things happen”. We are used to seeing this on the streets, so it is normal.

I’ve been to the Department of Health and Social Services and waited for hours to see someone. The lack of treatment is not for the lack of people trying to get it.

Maybe there isn’t enough to go around in this city, but the one thing I think would help more than anything?

An attitude adjustment.

We’ve all been desensitized to this issue, but maybe it’s time to have a little compassion. The first thing you can do? Stop calling them the crazies. It is the holidays after all.

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