Category Archives: mental illness

The empathy of silent voices

I’m solidly middle class. One might even say I’m yuppie-ish. I have a well-paying job, own a house, have a nice car, and am financially stable. I’m pretty fortunate, actually, given my modest upbringing as a child of welfare and food stamps, as upward mobility in the United States is pretty poor, despite what the American dream would imply. Nonetheless, I lead a pretty comfortable existence, with or without my mental illness.

Like many middle class folks, I rely heavily on my smartphone. I’m a total podcast junkie and listen to them almost any time I’ve got some time to myself where I don’t need to focus deeply. Podcasts have been a staple of my media consumption ever since I got my first smartphone in 2008, the iPhone 3G that poisoned me to Apple products forevermore. I listen to a lot of public radio, like any good white person. Among my favorites is The Diane Rehm Show.

Just today, I listened to a fascinating interview on Diane Rehm with Dr. Robert L. Okin, author of the book Silent Voices: People with Mental Disorders on the Streets. Dr. Okin decided over the course of a year to visit and interview people on the streets, speaking with them in detail about their lives, what brought them there, and what they needed. I have not yet read the book, but I hope to, as his interview was riveting. A large proportion of the homeless and inmate populations are mentally ill. Dr. Okin hoped to shed light on this fact in reference to the former, and help people understand just how similar the homeless are to all of us.

His stories were heartbreaking. Already quite vulnerable people made themselves even more vulnerable by opening themselves up to Dr. Okin, allowing their stories and photos to be made public in his book. He spoke to people who’d been sexually abused, ostracized, addicted, and mentally ill both before and during their homelessness. Dr. Okin discussed one man, Jeff, and his motivations and fears, motivations and fears shared by all of us. Jeff had lost all of his teeth, dental issues being common on the streets due to lack of care. His lack of teeth made him deeply ashamed. Jeff often dreamed of having a romantic relationship with a woman, but he willed himself to never look at women because he just knew that his lack of teeth would disgust them, even if he had dentures. A big nose was something you were born with, and thus many people would overlook it, he thought. But a lack of teeth indicated a dirty person, someone who didn’t live life correctly. Jeff wrestled with shame, as do we all.

I listened to this episode as I was removing blackberry vines from the property that I own, with a comfortable and well-maintained house on it, listening to a podcast on a device that I’m privileged enough to afford, after having come back from a meeting discussing giving scholarships to high school students who will be given a chance to succeed and likely will, and all that following a day working at a job that I’m fortunate to have only because others invested in my education so that I too could succeed. Jeff could have easily been me, I thought. I’m in a position where I can take medications and deal with my health and lifestyle in such a way that I can manage my dysthymia. Had my life’s circumstances been different, had someone – including me – made a different decision, I thought, I could have been on the streets. My mother raised my sister and I on a very low income, but we were fed, clothed, housed, and educated. What if our grandparents hadn’t been around to help support her and us? What if, like my father, I’d become addicted to drugs? What if our mother had died from the illness that has plagued her since my sister and I were young? What if, what if, what if?

The thought of what these people go through, how they must feel, and how very poorly I would have done in such a situation made tears well up in my eyes. Perhaps that was the sweat and sunscreen making that happen, but I don’t think so. That was empathy.

Empathy is not a quality I had to much degree previously, for reasons that are probably obvious to those of you who’ve read some of my other posts. Said more directly, I lacked empathy in any real sense of the term. Sure, I could intellectually identify with someone’s plight, but truly being able to feel what someone else might be feeling didn’t come until after I could see in color. Now, while I don’t consider myself strongly empathetic, I nonetheless am capable of imagining and, in doing so, feeling what other people feel, just as I did with the people Dr. Okin profiled.

I’m just getting used to processing empathy. It’s been hard enough processing the new-to-me emotions brought on by things in my own life, but processing emotions raised by events in others’ lives adds a whole new element. Reading or hearing about something like this in the past would have engendered a logical assessment of how awful such a situation was. It generally wouldn’t spur any kind of response, though. It wouldn’t make me change the way that I interact with the homeless. I’d still have avoided eye contact, still refused to help them, thinking that such things were better handled by supporting shelters and soup kitchens. Now, though, I’m not sure I can just turn my head anymore. We share a kinship, and I don’t mean our struggles with mental illness. Rather, I refer to our shared humanity. I’m finally able to grasp both the emotional and intellectual parts of being a humanist. Like Dr. Okin, perhaps I can carry a spare set of socks or a hat, buy a homeless person a sandwich or a bus ticket. These are things that I never would have considered before, showing my progress.

And the fact that I even have to consider them shows the sad lack of social progress in treating one of the underlying causes of homelessness. So please, give to your local homeless shelter, domestic violence center, social support agency, or whoever you feel would best support the downtrodden in your own area. Write to your state and federal legislators to encourage them to invest money in prevention rather incarceration. I don’t believe that we can completely eliminate mental illness, but at least we can prevent its most deleterious impacts on people’s lives.


I’m in a dysthymia support group on Facebook. It’s been an interesting, educational experience that I’ll write about some other time. The group has been of particular interest lately, however, as the group has been arguing over the proper role of religion in such a group. A friend of mine in an illness support group had a similar experience.

The argument was spurred by a couple of posts and comments. First, a participant asked, how can a benevolent god leave me to suffer with this terrible affliction? This is a mild version of the problem of evil, considered one of strongest arguments against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being. It essentially boils down to this: how could such a being allow the clear evils that occur in our world to happen? Proponents of theism do not have a good argument to defend against the problem of evil other than “god has a plan” or “we’re incapable of understanding such a being’s motivations”. These responses typically are dismissed out-of-hand by most philosophers as the non-responses that they are.

(Did I mention that I’m a recovering philosophy major? If you didn’t know, then you do now!)

The second event that caused the religion flare-up on the dysthymia group was a person saying she didn’t want people to pray for her when someone said as such in response to one of her posts. This woman had poor experiences with religion in her youth, and prayer made her uncomfortable. Others perceived this as an attack on their religion and their well-wishes.

I have a confession to make. Well, okay, I already made it in my very first post: I’m an atheist. Or, more accurately, I’m a humanist. Like many humanists, I dislike the term “atheism” because it defines my belief system in terms of another, more “dominant” set of beliefs, rather than accepting it as a system unto itself. By proclaiming a lack of belief in a supernatural being(s), I am not making an extraordinary claim about the world. Quite to the contrary, those who believe in a supernatural being(s) are making such a claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Such evidence is lacking (See how easily the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments for the existence of a supreme being(s) are dispensed). I also dislike “atheist” because there’s still a significant amount of bias against humanists.

Many people who have chronic or deadly illnesses find comfort in religion. People use it as a source of strength and hope. Step two of Alcoholics Anonymous is “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”. It’s hard for many to imagine having hope in absence of faith. Otherwise, the world just seems random and cruel. And just as those people in the dysthymia support group think, religion gives people the power to carry forward, confident that things will get better.

Such beliefs seem unnecessary and often counterproductive to me. Nonetheless, I don’t begrudge people feeling comfort in religion, as long as they’re not forcing it upon others, of course.People should find solace where they can. The thought of suffering through an illness such as dysthymia minus the help of the divine likely seems frightening to some, but I receive my comfort from science, reason, interconnection, and our common humanity.

So religion doesn’t help me to live life with dysthymia. What does help me is the thought of how incredibly amazing it is that we’re here. Us. Individually. The specific people that we are. Think about it: in order for the multiverse to have produced you, it took a series of events and choices spanning billions of years. Billions with a “B”. Any slight difference anywhere along that line of happenings could have produced someone or something completely different. But instead, you are the culmination of the multiverse’s work. I think that’s pretty damn amazing, and inspiring. How can I not be spurred to make the world a better place when it took so long for it to make me the person who I am, cosmically and just within my lifetime? Richard Dawkins says it best:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” (From Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder)

It’s hard to see such perspective when I’m in the throes of depression (Which, by the way, might very well be an evolutionary adaptation. More coolness about the world!). Then again, as evidenced by the interlocutor in the dysthymia support group, neither necessarily would a religious perspective. But in my stronger times, I find the enormity of the world an inspiration, even if there may be bugger for intelligent life here on earth.