In 2006, I wrote this post about Edwin, a homeless man I talked to for some time — a habit I don’t indulge in very often. His sister contacted me out of the blue and shared his life story, that of a smart and talented man who suffered from neglect, abuse and mental illness and drowned his pain in substances. A life wasted. A common, heartbreaking story. Back when I wrote the aforementioned blog post, I used to read the Steve Lopez column about Nathaniel, the schizophrenic musician he followed around for some time. A movie was made inspired by their encounter. No movie will ever be made about Edwin, but his life is no less worth remembering. If nothing else, as a lesson about how little we do about helping people with mental illness in this world.
How can one help people in need through meaningful ways, beyond just giving them a few guilty bucks? It is often hard to tell what they really need and I can’t feel responsible for every single person on the street. Life is always so uneven. I had never seen homeless people until I moved to the United States. While I was growing up in Athens, even during the recession one only saw the occasional drunk sleeping on a bench. Now Athens is full of homeless people, much like it was in post-WWII Greece when Hitler left the country in starvation by shipping away all the food.
The numbers can’t be verified but somewhere in the range of 100-300 thousand people died without food. Athens was a dire place back then. My mother near died of typhoid in the city. My father fared better in the country as they could at least grow some vegetables. It is hard to imagine a time when the wheelbarrows carried dead bodies out of the cities. Yet in our towns today, homeless people are found dead on the street everyday and many aren’t mourned for by anyone. We often think that “those people” had a choice and somehow should had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
Mental illness is uncomfortable to think about and it is often hard to imagine what someone is or was without it. We romanticize and/or demonize mental illness in movies, media and in our imagination. We’re all guilty but setting boundaries against someone who is behaving less than “normal” and beyond “eccentric” is a hard thing to do. A lack of knowledge about accurate science regarding mental illness has a lot to do with this. “Normal” is not just a socially constructed group of characteristics and behaviors. Just ask someone who isn’t functioning to the fullest of their potential. And we do need science to help, because loving people is just not enough…
We know that some of the risks that increase the incidence of mental illness are inherited. Others are a result of a crappy upbringing or simply too many traumatic events in one’s life. Resilience can be inherited but is not endless and artifacts of stress and anxiety can be passed on to our offspring at a genetic level. How can we prevent all this? I am learning a lot through a partnership with Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. My partners in developing an interactive project that could help re-frame how we think about child development are Nahil Sharkasi, Diane Tucker and Amy Akmal.
Edwin is a face to a socially constructed predicament we all encounter too often for comfort. Maybe this project can go further than the 20 bucks I gave to Edwin at a corner gas station: sadly, it was too late to do anything else for him.