Mental Illness Stigma: Risky Business

Dear Manager at a NYC Pennsylvania Station Coffee Shop:

I’m not sure if you remember, but the other day, a homeless woman came to the entrance of your coffee shop. She was dancing around, and when you asked her to stop, she made some angry remarks, and left. After this, manager lady, you proceeded to laugh at her with your employees. You encouraged and egged them on as they called her “crazy” over and over again. You giggled when they said that they were glad you were there that day, because normally you “miss all of the crazy shit.”

You seemed quite surprised when I approached you, and asked if you were the manager. After all, I seemed to be a business woman just quietly eating a yogurt in your shop. I was on your side, wasn’t I?

When I told you that it was unprofessional to laugh, and to encourage your employees to laugh at someone who may have an illness, you got quite defensive. I tried to explain that people with mental illness deserve compassion, not to be laughed at, scorned, or mocked. You said, “but what am I supposed to do if they destroy my shop?” I was a bit puzzled by this question, as I didn’t see this particular woman even fully enter the shop, so I was wondering how she could destroy it, but I humored you anyway.

“Should she have tried to destroy your shop, it would have been just fine to ask her to leave, or even to call security. Destroying one’s shop is a crime. Dancing is a form of merriment and entertainment,” I said. “It may have even been appropriate to ask her to leave if she was causing a scene in your coffee shop and disturbing other patrons,” I continued, “but, laughing at her to her face and after she left, and condoning it when your employees did the same is not just unprofessional, it is immoral.” I then looked around and noticed a young businessman who was in earshot laughing smugly into his coffee as I went on, “I will never shop here again.”

It’s been a few days, manager lady, so I’m not sure if you remember our exchange at all. I hope that you do, but I cannot be sure. I wonder if you were curious after our encounter about what prompted me to defend this homeless, seemingly mentally ill woman in the first place. Well, the answer is, I was that woman. Years ago, I was diagnosed with a serious mental illness myself. And, while you may have witnessed me as a well-dressed, well-spoken commuter, you probably didn’t suppose that fifteen years earlier, my behavior was very similar to that woman’s.

You probably wouldn’t have imagined, as I stood before you in my pearl necklace and freshly pressed silk dress, that I was once found by a group of my peers lying completely naked in the living room of our shared apartment in a complete daze, and that said peers asked me if I’d been raised in a barn. You probably didn’t speculate as you stared at my trendy haircut that during that time I could often be found disheveled, muttering and pacing, and that my roommates would utter phrases like “jeepers, kreepers” every time I entered the room, supposing that I couldn’t hear them.

Yes, I was that woman. In fact, I am that woman. I could hear the insults then, and I carry the scars of them now. I hated myself during those years, but not nearly as much as society seemed to hate me. I was a pariah in my community, just like that woman. I was “out of control,” and someone who needed to be locked away.

But, the truth is, manager lady, that I got better. I now have a great career where I train psychiatrists and social workers, and have my own life coaching practice. And, with the proper supports, recovery is possible for that woman, too. That woman deserves your compassion just as much as I did standing right in front of you that day. What you and your esteemed employees were doing by laughing at her was proliferating mental illness stigma. Making that woman “the other” or “crazy” means that you don’t have to view her as a human who deserves respect. But, manager lady, when approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year, you actually probably have people close to you that are afflicted just like the woman in your shop; maybe an even one of your own employees, friends, or children. And, how are they going to feel about getting help, manager lady, when you tell them the story of the “crazy lady” in your store? Not wanting you to view them as crazy also, maybe they won’t get help. And, this could be a disaster at best, fatal at worst.

And so, dear manager at a NYC Pennsylvania Station coffee shop, I would like to remind you that you serve the public. You serve not just part of the public that you deem “worthy” of serving, but everyone. When you mistreat people with mental illness, you are mistreating not just the lady who was dancing in your shop, but many of your other patrons as well (in fact, possibly very wealthy ones who like to buy a lot of coffee). And, while I won’t call out your actual shop name here on Huffington Post in front of an international audience, because I’m not that kind of person, I will say that you may want to rethink some of your business practices, manager lady.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter,

Emily L.Grossman, MA, CPRP

Former Patron in your shop

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