A recent CDC study found that while 89 percent of adults agreed with the statement that “treatment can help persons with mental illness lead normal lives,” just 57 percent agreed that “people are caring and sympathetic to those with mental illness.”
Though study authors speak of the need for continued efforts, activities, and media relations to boost these numbers still higher, I took comfort in the findings. In my 25 years as a writer, explainer, and persuader, I've found that people can be “educated” about something, but that they become “convinced” through the often random, coincidental, or accidental experiences of life-things that we would say “get you where you live.”
That brings me to a short story: Some years ago, the house across the street from my family's home was sold. All the neighbors were, of course, curious and glad to observe the investments made by the new owner, seen in the stream of trucks and workmen going in and out for several weeks, making improvements indoors and out.
As the work neared conclusion, my doorbell rang. I was visited by a longtime neighbor, a kind and compassionate person, who lived next to the sold property. With a note of concern, he told me that the property's title had been transferred and that a “a group home” was moving in. He had asked our city councilman to look into the matter. “Is it legal,” he wondered, “for such a home to be set up in a residential neighborhood?”
The fact that it was indeed legal did not entirely resolve his concerns. Our conversations continued as he articulated issues that other neighbors and I wondered privately: “Who will be ‘in charge’ at this home?” “What kind of people will be living here?” “Who will we, our spouses, and our kids meet when we go to the mailbox?”
We soon found out: three 30-something women and one young man, with a small team of social workers and caregivers who work regular shifts. At the residents' open house, we met their parents along with others who took an interest in the county's growing network of group homes. We saw the visits of their friends and relatives, the group of their peers that does landscape and maintenance work every week, the bus driver who picks up two of the residents every day. But one group we never saw at the home was the local police. Not once, though they have visited the homes of other neighbors on the street.
I've come to know Beverly, the home's supervisor, who visited me to smooth over a concern about on-street parking. I know Veronica, a social worker who ran over to use the phone when she locked herself out, worried that she'd momentarily left a resident alone inside. And, I've come to know Roxanne, a pleasant, friendly woman whom I met on my way to the mailbox. On occasion, we catch up through a brief conversation. And, I see her signature next to those of the other residents on the holiday card that accompanies the plate of cookies they prepare for neighbors each holiday season.
Though it seemed important at one time, I've never again wondered about the kind of people these are. Experience brought me the only answer that my family and the others on our street really need: They're our neighbors.
Dennis G. Grantham, Senior Editor Behavioral Healthcare 2010 July-August;30(7):6