Why mental illness is no laughing matter

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I was recently in a car with a couple of friends (they were actually a couple!) and the husband suddenly started laughing. His wife asked him what was funny and turning to me, he pointed out the window and said, laughter still in his voice: "Isn’t that one of your patients?" I looked in the direction he pointed to see a man, probably middle-aged, standing absent-minded by the road. He was clad in a pair of old, dirty shorts and a singlet that must once have been white.

"I really don't think that's funny," I said.

"But it is! I mean, really, just look at him," he countered.

"OK," I said, "Assuming he had a huge sore across his face, or he had cancer or HIV or something, would you still laugh? That guy is a human being like you. He has parents, brothers and sisters, maybe even a wife and children somewhere. Do you think they find it funny?" (I was tempted to ask if he would think it was funny if he was any of those people, but he might not have found that funny, and I didn't want to push it. Plus it was his car, not mine.)

Really, though, it's not funny. And it's not funny for the same reasons I gave him…

  • That's a human being like you and me. It's sad that he was in such a state, but what would you think of someone who thought it funny that you stumbled and fell?
  • He wasn't just in a state, he represented a loss. That man was someone's son, someone's brother. Maybe someone's husband, or father. Who knows what he could have been in the community if he'd gotten good care?
  • After all, what if it was someone you cared about? Would it still be funny? Or what if it was (as a good Nigerian, I should insert, "God forbid" here) you?

No, mental illness is no joke. It's real, it's serious, and the least we can do is treat it—and those who live with it—with respect. Or is that too much to ask? (Tweet that.)

How about you? Would you have found it funny? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments.