Compassion, Kindness and Humor:
One Therapist’s First Experience on Working with the Mentally Challenged
I’ll tell you a funny story. I got “bamboozled”, many years ago, into working with my first group of mentally challenged patients at our local community outreach center. I am a Creative Arts Therapist who had worked in many environments around Southern California including Battered Women’s shelters, Children’s Hospitals, Prisons, Schools and a great deal of Drug & Alcohol Rehab, which is what I was doing when this story takes place.
I was facilitating a group of addicts for the Prop 36 program at our local Mental Health Clinic in Los Angeles when a terrified young intern interrupted my class asking if I could help her. Apparently some policemen were at the front of the building with a woman they had picked up on the streets who said she was being treated here. I excused myself and went out front to find a couple of overworked, overstressed cops standing next to a lady who was clearly disoriented. Behind her the policemen were rolling their eyes in the way folks do who do not understand mental illness, and asked me if I was in charge. “I don’t know about that,” I responded, “but let’s see what we can do for this lady.” She interrupted the formalities by exclaiming, “Thank God you’ve arrived, I have something critical to tell you about.”
Turning to her I smiled and said, “Ok. May I first ask you your name?”
I asked her if she was seeing a doctor at this facility and she indicated yes, but hadn’t yet come for her first appointment. A-ha. She was impatient to impart her information to us. Apparently the policemen hadn’t wanted to listen. Perhaps I would.
“So are you currently on any meds, Nancy?”
“I haven’t gotten them yet.”
“Ok. So I will put in a call to your doctor or the attending tonight, but I must tell you that the earliest you could be seen is tomorrow, I would guess. Do you have somewhere safe to go tonight?”
“Look.” she said urgently, “Forget all that. Jon Bon Jovi is about to go on a tri-county murder spree and I have come to warn you about it.”
That pretty much changed the direction of the conversation. The policemen were doing the twirly finger around the ear movement behind her back, but I looked her deeply in the eyes and said, “Thank you, Nancy. I’m so glad you have come here to tell us. May I ask how you learned of this?”
“On the radio.”
“Ah- yes. Ok. Good. Well, Nance, we’ll be able to take it from here. May I ask again if you’ve got a safe place to go tonight?” (hoping the policemen would not have to take her to the local hospital).
“Yes, I live with my sister.”
“Well then would you let these nice gentlemen escort you home and make sure you come back tomorrow for your appointment with the doctor?”
“Yes.” And with that she left, feeling safe, and having been heard.
I got a call the following week from the director of the Clinic asking if I would take on the job of “Sober Events Coordinator” – essentially bringing what I loving refer to as “Karaoke Therapy” to the clinic for the outpatients. Frankly, I had been used to dealing with the addicts and other “normies” in the program and assumed that my new group would be made up of these individuals, all folks seeking to stay sober and find healthy outlets for their energy. What I found the first night was most of the mentally challenged population of our community, both homeless and family secure. It turned out to one of the most rewarding, wonderful experiences of my life.
I ran that group for many years until budget cuts and the financial crisis hit our small center and forced us to disband, but I will always remember that with kindness, respect, compassion and a lot of humor, we built a community that felt safe and honored. A haven away from the weird looks and hurtful behavior these wonderful folks endured on the streets. I would serve a full dinner to anyone who would show up, have a wonderful roundtable of discussion and stories, and then retreat to our foyer, where we would sing our hearts out for the rest of the evening. I treated them like they were the stars of American Idol and they loved it. I will admit that it was some of the worst singing you could imagine, but came with the biggest smiles one could ever see. You have not heard George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” until you have heard it sung by a heavily medicated patient dealing with paranoid schizophrenia. Priceless.
I still see my “singers” all the time around town and each one comes up to smile and share their stories with me and talk about how much our group meant to them. I still get e mails from some of the participants, extraordinary letters that could only be written by the special folks with these challenges, and I always love to write back and praise their work and thank them for taking the time to communicate with me.
The special care and kindness, the respect we show, the humor we can share with our mentally ill brothers and sisters will offer untold benefits in the years to come. For them…and us.