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.