What would you do if you were to be walking through a busy shopping centre one day and there in front of you amidst the hustle and bustle of shoppers pushing past each other you spied a small boy stood all alone and looking lost?
Would your heart go out to him?
Would you stop and try to help? Would you simply walk on for fear that someone might think you were up to no good were you to stop and try to help him?
Would you immediately go off to find a shop assistant or security officer or police officer and alert them? Would you simply think it someone else’s responsibility and go about your business not giving it another thought apart from perhaps a casual one later?
The truth is that any one of those responses are possible aren’t they? The fact is that any one if not all of them would have been taken by people in exactly that situation. And even if you heart did go out to that lonely lost looking boy in a crowd have you ever thought why that is?
Can you empathise with the boy in that situation? Feel sorry for him? Compassionate towards him? Protective of him?
What if we changed the scenario slightly? What if instead of a small boy stood all alone looking lost he was a grown man stood all alone looking lost?
Do his adulthood remove some of the fear, some of the potential danger in this situation?
You are still the same. The crowds are still the same. Arguably the situation and circumstances have changed. But just how much have they changed?
Is he no longer alone? Is he no longer lost? Is he no longer vulnerable? At risk?
What if we made the man older?
Has the potential for him to be; lost, alone, vulnerable, at risk returned?
Again we have to ask the question what has changed here? The boy being lost and alone stirs up all these feelings which are in many ways removed by the boy being older and being man. But add even more years and those feelings, that compassion and fear for his safety might somehow return.
Why? Could it be because we expect someone who has reached those adult years but not yet reached those older adult years to be more competent? More capable?
But how do we know that?
What if that man – that man who has reached adulthood but not yet become elderly – has mental health issues that are not readily noticeable?
What if he is just as lost, just as alone, just as confused, just as scared, just as vulnerable as that young boy or that elderly man? What then?
I am of course not suggesting that every time we see a grown man or woman stood alone in the middle of a crowd we have to go up and approach him. Nor of course am I suggesting that every grown man or woman stood in a crowd has mental health difficulties.
And for the record nor am I suggesting that all elderly people are frail and in need of help.
But what I am suggesting is that mental illness is not always obvious in a person and that it can be experienced by folk of all different backgrounds, ages, genders, and circumstances of life.
And what I am very much suggesting is that very often when mental illness is present in a person’s life it sometimes takes that person beyond usual or common experiences and circumstances and because of that we all need to be able to look beyond what we first see. Beyond our usual or common understandings and expectations and to adjust our picture and our responses accordingly.