I first noticed Eric when he knelt in the passenger lounge, exposing his jiggling belly to a couple of giggling children. There was something about Eric that made me wonder whether he had a mental health condition. We were both in the same group to board our plane—I on my way home to West Palm Beach and he, as it turned out, to rehab. I could hear Eric’s voice above all others in the jet way as he shouted out in frustration at something.
As it happened, I was returning from a NAMI training. I am a former civil rights attorney whose clientele was mental health patients being held against their will in mental hospitals and prisoners whose mental health needs were ignored by prison authorities. I’m also an ordained Episcopal deacon.
Despite all this, I prayed that Eric wouldn’t be seated near me. And then, when he was seated right next to me, I prayed for the wisdom to know what to do. Should I tell the flight attendant that Eric might have a mental health condition? What would I do if Eric suddenly leapt into the aisle or tried to bust out a window? I decided it would be easier for everyone if I waited until we reached cruising altitude and then walked to the restroom. Then I would tell the flight attendant that I wanted to be reseated and why.
It was in trying to come up with a plan that I realized even with all my training, my job and my beliefs, I was afraid of Eric, and I wanted as little to do with him as possible. I sat with that realization as we took off.
Fear of Flying
By the time we reached 10,000 feet, I was no longer quite so afraid. I listened as Eric quietly murmured throughout the flight. Sometimes, he would seem to remember past events and talk directly to the people who existed only in his mind. Sometimes, he would grumble about being seated in such tight quarters and restrained by a seat belt. He drank a lot of scotch.
About twenty minutes from arrival, Eric turned to me and apologized for being so jittery. I told him that I wasn’t bothered. He went on to explain that he doesn’t do well without being able to get up and walk around, and we commiserated about how restrictive flying is.
Then Eric volunteered that his 16-year-old daughter had recently died, along with his dog, Nico. He said, “I feel so lost.” I told him that I talk to a lot of people who feel lost and tried to reassure him that he was not alone. Then I told Eric about my own struggles with depression and how lost and isolated I felt.
As we talked, I noticed how the people around us began to relax and chat. While I thought I could normalize the situation by ignoring Eric, normalization occurred when I engaged with him, just as I would any other passenger. Eric even allowed me to grab his arm as we landed after I told him that I was afraid of flying.
Being Compassionate Despite Stigma
NAMI defines stigma as when a person sees someone “in a negative way just because they have a mental health condition.” This negativity can display in judgment or shame—or something much worse. I’ve always hoped that we, as a society, are more progressive in our thinking about mental illness such that we are no longer blaming the victim. I’ve also hoped that we don’t associate any illness as complex and mysterious as mental illness with a defect in character. But when I hear mental illness referred to as “behavioral health” rather than “brain disease,” I wonder whether we’ve made any progress at all.
And then there’s Eric.
I’d like to think that I wasn’t afraid of Eric, but if I’m honest with myself, it felt more like Eric had a disease I wanted no part of—a disease as frightening as Ebola or AIDS. I felt some irrational fear that he could disturb my own peace of mind or physical safety just for being there.
Yet, I am certain that my many NAMI colleagues would have done what I did: acknowledge the reality of the fear associated with mental illness but choose to treat the person with the same compassion and dignity we would any other human being.
In order to be truly stigma free, we have to make conscious efforts to recognize our ingrained stigma and act instead in a supportive way. We can acknowledge our fears, but face them anyway. Be afraid of flying, sure, but still get on the plane. Be unsure of the person sitting next to you, but start a dialogue anyway. We may not be able to control our initial thoughts about someone, but we can control how we treat them.
Rev. Helen Trainor is an Episcopal deacon whose professional life as an attorney included representing people with mental illness and female inmates in need of medical care. She currently works as a volunteer for NAMI/ Palm Beach County, Florida, trying to build a state-wide mental health advocacy coalition to address Florida’s ranking of 50 among the 50 states in its level of funding for mental health.