The crazy lady next door

A recent survey reveals that New Zealanders are mostly ok with ethnic minorities or LGBT people living next door, only half would be ok with someone with a diagnosed mental illness moving in. I am happy that three quarters of us would be ok with living next to a Maori or an Indian or a gay person. I mean, it could be better but three quarters isn’t terrible. But only half being ok with the mentally ill? What is that saying?

The first thing it says is that people do not understand mental illness. I reckon they’re imagining someone seriously ill moving in, someone who can’t care for themselves yet is somehow living alone, while the reality of the garden variety mental health client is very different. Something like one in five people suffer from mental illnesses at some point – so, statistically, a bunch of people you know have mental illnesses, and it’s likely that you don’t even know about at least a few of them. Mental illness is not just people who have been on meds so long that they shake uncontrollably, who are unable to deal with personal care, who are prone to flying into a rage at strangers over tiny things. It’s the guy next door, who seem just fine, if a bit quiet. It’s the lady down the road who seems to keep odd hours but is nice enough. It’s also your doctor, your dentist, your receptionist, and your cleaner. It’s the parking warden you just swore at under your breath, and your friend’s mum who bakes the best cookies.

Living next door to someone with a mental illness shouldn’t be a big deal. It is quite likely that if you live in a few places, with a few people, you will end up living with someone with a mental illness, diagnosed or otherwise. Sure, you’re going to hate some of them, but you’re going to like and care about others. If you can live with them, you can live next door to them, where you don’t have to fight about the hairs left all over the bathroom.

What about the seriously mentally ill, who can’t care for themselves properly? Wouldn’t it be a bad thing to live next door to them? Well, no. In almost all cases, you’re going to notice their mental illness about as much as you notice someone’s epilepsy or diabetes. Sure, there can be emergencies where the illness comes to the fore and it gets all very exciting for a while, and maybe you even have to call an ambulance, but in general everything goes on behind closed doors.

There are exceptions, people who cause trouble for their neighbours by their behaviour – but they’re rare, and they shouldn’t be the standard by which mentally ill people are judged. The truth is, the bipolar patient next door is no different to the diabetic over the back fence. They’re just out to live their own lives in their own homes, and people should not be afraid of that.

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