The stereotypes we have of mental illness are pretty extreme, but they do have some basis in reality. Many people with depression do become very isolated. Many very unwell people do stop caring about their physical appearance. It’s one of the more obvious signs of some mental illness.
There are other diseases and injuries that cause visible, outward signs. Polio often gave survivors a limp. Cancer treatment can involve loss of hair, and breast cancer also can involve the loss of one or both breasts. We accept that (even if we would rather it didn’t happen) and we have made it socially unacceptable to mock people who have these visible differences. People aren’t perfect, and there is still able-body prejudice, but in general the social pressure is to accept people who are visibly different due to illness, and to attempt to make them feel at ease.
There’s something different about those who are presenting abnormally because they are mentally ill. A cancer sufferer gets sympathy; someone going out wearing bizarre clothes and acting oddly gets called a ‘fucking weirdo’. Someone in a wheelchair gets pity, or maybe gets patronised; someone who hasn’t showered in six weeks and acts erratically gets the cops called on them for ‘being a psycho’.
The abuse that gets thrown at people who are obviously psychiatrically unwell is unacceptable. It adds to the stigma of mental illness. It’s not ok to abuse someone in a wheelchair for being a ‘fucking cripple’, or to abuse someone with Down Syndrome for being a ‘fucking retard’. It needs to sink in to the public consciousness that sort of abuse is also not acceptable toward the mentally ill.
Some people, sometimes, are going to appear in public obviously unwell. If they’re not a danger to you, themselves, or anyone else, then leave them alone. That means no pointing, no laughing, no snide remarks that you think they can’t hear, no talking to your workmates about the psycho that you served today. No running away from serving them because they’re creepy. No replaying the security tapes so you can laugh at the crazy things they did. Learn some respect for others, and show it.
If they’re a danger to themselves or others, yes, call the cops. With any luck, they will treat the person with as much dignity and respect as possible (this doesn’t always happen, at all, but you can only hope they are trained about mental health issues and understanding). If there is an element of danger, then calling the police is the right thing to do – but ‘someone acting weird’ is not a good enough reason.
The mentally ill are people too, no matter what face they present to the world. And they deserve the same respect that everyone else does.