The Soloist – Mental Illness

We saw the film The Soloist today.  As one who serves an inner city congregation and has contact with men and women who are mentally ill and who live on the streets, I found this portrayal to hold such deep truth.  So many men and women who are mentally ill live on the streets. They are first and foremost individuals, people with hearts, and histories, and the need for friends.  We are clear that our mental health system has abandoned so many.  Yet, the answers are not clear.  The issues and behaviors are complex, to say the least, and cannot be romanticized.  Those with extreme untreated schizophrenia live in a world that most of us cannot understand.  Very often we respond in fear, and in self protection.  I understand why:  not because they are violent (they seldom are) or are a threat to us, but because we are at a loss and do not know how to relate with care, while keeping appropriate boundaries for ourselves and for the one who is ill.   That requires a level of work and commitment that most of us are not ready to give.   The one who is mentally ill, very often does not function within expected and accepted  social boundaries.

In The Soloist, Nathanial and other homeless, mentally ill people in the community have needs and passions rooted in their life experiences — just as we all do.  Theirs are just muddled in a mind that is jumbled; that at least I don’t understand.  Nathanial’s ways of speech and expression are so familiar.  I confess that there have been times when I have heard this apparently nonsensical mixture of words, phrases and images and I have written that person off.  I have forgotten that she or he is someone trying to make sense of her/his world, trying to express a concern or a need.  Perhaps my care and respect for her as person is what I can give at that moment. All too often, it is not that those who are mentally ill and homeless do not have families; but that those who loved them have worn out, given up, reached the point of not knowing what to do.  Worn down by their behaviors, their families have backed away out of a need to care for themselves and others in the family.

The Soloist, though affirming the need to care for the individual as he is, leaves us with the difficult question of how we as communities best care for those living with mental illness.  Yes, we need to offer friendship without the need to “fix” the person.  On the other hand, how can we offer protection and care and, yes, helpful treatment when possible.  The need to respect the individuality and rights of the person cannot mean that we stop searching for ways to improve the life conditions of those who are ill.


One thought on “The Soloist – Mental Illness

  1. I think it does take a village to care for those with any kind of mental illness or insufficiency, and you are right about the families just being worn out and needing to care for themselves at some point. We saw that over and over with mentally ill folks in a congregation we served. When my mother’s Alzheimer’s became so advanced that she could no longer live at home, I felt guilty about not being able to care for her myself. The staff at the wonderful home she was able to live in told me that family caregivers could work all day and night and still not be able to keep up with her needs. I was lucky, she was able to afford to live in a good, caring and inexpensive place where people loved her and she loved them. Somehow as a society we have to start providing the support the families of the mentally ill need, the respite they need, and the community caregivers to step in when they can no longer provide the care. And at the same time enable the mentally ill to provide their own needs when possible. But we refuse to spend the money and so people are left to wander the streets, sleep in the parks, suffer from crimes against them, and continue to be feared and misunderstood. Thanks for highlighting this issue for us.

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