They evoke mixed feelings in us: curiosity, disgust, pity, irritation – and a desire to distance ourselves from looking. Strange appearance, unkempt or pretentious clothes, slow movements or erratic gestures, gaze or, conversely, elusive gaze …
The life of mentally ill people is full of fears, uncontrollable affects, confused thoughts. They can see images, hear sounds that do not exist in reality, their thoughts and actions are subject to strange, bizarre logic. However, despite this inner chaos, they manage to maintain human dignity and hope for understanding. Why is it so difficult for us to feel empathy for them? Why, instead, we have a desire not to know, to forget, not to think?
Ours and others
Madness is frightening. First, because it is associated with violence. And it is not always wrong. Even if murders for the purpose of robbery are committed much more often than crimes in a fit of insanity, psychiatrists still know how easily a mentally unstable person, in a fit of paranoia, pursued by imaginary enemies, can turn into a criminal.
If a person’s behavior does not correspond to generally accepted rules, he is perceived as a stranger
In addition, the appearance and behavior of mentally ill people become a challenge to social norms that prescribe the rules of behavior and control emotions. We try to follow these guidelines, and anything that goes beyond them is alarming and annoying. And people with mental problems are so different from us: we cannot understand what is happening in their inner world, which prompts them to behave inappropriately, from our point of view. It is this dissimilarity that causes tension and fear.
“This happens because in any culture people are used to dividing those around them into friends and foes,” explains anthropologist Marina Butovskaya. – If a person’s behavior does not correspond to generally accepted rules, he is perceived as a stranger. And strangers frighten us with the inability to predict their actions, to understand their intentions. And so we unconsciously perceive them as a source of danger. “
Challenge to reason
“The fear of going crazy can manifest itself in various forms,” says psychiatrist Elena Vrono. “We may be intimidated by the possibility of destruction of personality or intellect. In addition, we may be afraid of losing control of a situation or losing social connections. However, deeper, archaic fears lie behind all these manifestations. “
Sometimes, in a panic attack or in a state of severe stress, it may seem to us that we are “going crazy”: a strong anxiety takes possession of the soul, thoughts get confused, we do things unusual for us. This happens because in everyone there is an embryo of mental imbalance, a certain zone beyond the control of reason.
Many people are afraid of the diagnosis – it seems like a stigma that will remain for life
“Every child in his development goes through a stage when his psyche is filled with fears and fantasies about objects that carry danger, about absorption, devouring, disappearance,” explains psychotherapist Valentina Shipilova. – If a child grows up in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, these fears and fantasies are gradually repressed into the unconscious, and the psyche builds a powerful defense against them.
In adults, they can “break through” in a state of stress or trauma – for example, in the form of nightmares, confusion of thought. And what happens to mentally ill people? Their psyche does not have such defenses, cannot cope with such fears, and they experience this whole nightmare every day in reality. “
Looking at them, we are frightened, because they touch deep fears from which we are well protected, but of which we have vague memories.
Baggage of prejudice
Another reason for fear is the attitude towards psychiatry in general (in everyday life this is a closed, incomprehensible and therefore frightening area) and towards psychiatric clinics, which until recently (rightly) were associated with violence and inhumanity. Meanwhile, the improvement of psychotropic drugs gives sick people more and more chances to get rid of suffering, to regain peace of mind.
“And yet, the bias towards psychiatry is still very strong,” says Elena Vrono. – People are afraid of the diagnosis – it seems to many a stigma that will remain for life. Therefore, people do not seek help even in very simple cases. If a person, for example, has bronchitis, he will not be treated on his own, but will resort to the help of a doctor. If the soul hurts, the best way out is to also go to a specialist and be treated. “
Contact with the unconscious
We are able to empathize with the suffering of the mentally ill because each of us has experienced anxiety or despair. Although we respond not to the pain of these people, but to our own fears, we are afraid to find ourselves in a similar situation. Usually compassion occurs through identifying ourselves with another person, when we can put ourselves in his place, feel what he is experiencing.
But with mentally ill people, such an identification is almost impossible, since you will have to put yourself in the place of someone who is possessed by feelings intolerable to us, to feel the chaos that reigns in his soul.
About manias, phobias or multiple personality disorder, we can only get a vague idea. Therefore, if in a panic attack or in a stressful situation it suddenly seems to us that we are going crazy, it is worth remembering that this “madness” is temporary. It is important to understand: we are faced with our own unconscious, but not with a real disease!
“I really wanted to understand these people and get as close to them as possible”
Julia Vysotskaya, actress
In 2002 she played Zhanna, a patient of a psychiatric clinic, the main character of Andrei Konchalovsky’s film House of Fools. Preparing for the shooting, which took place in one of the neuropsychiatric dispensaries in Moscow, Yulia Vysotskaya spent two months among the patients of the boarding school, trying to understand their attitude, to find the exact features for the role.
Psychologies: With what feelings did you go to the dispensary for the first time? Weren’t you scared?
Yulia Vysotskaya: It was not scary, because I knew absolutely nothing about this world. But when I got there, I experienced fear – first of all at the psychophysical level: there are different smells, different views, different energy. Everything is different. No, no, there was no aggression, people are very calm. But they perceive themselves and the world around them differently, they have a special relationship with the past and the future, cause-and-effect relationships, associative thinking are less developed. For patients, for example, it was not a surprise that I appeared there and then left somewhere – they did not care where I was at night … I think you need to go crazy in order to fully understand what and how they feel …
Weren’t you afraid to become the same, to go crazy?
No, because at that time I really wanted to understand these people and get as close to them as possible. I wanted to let myself go as far as possible professionally. It was scary because there you cannot draw parallels with your ordinary life, from the feeling of unpredictability – not only the reactions of people, but everything that happens. The first days I was in a tense state, and then I relaxed and felt more comfortable. Although sometimes a terrible thought appeared: what if I never leave here? Such moments are very helpful to enjoy the minutes of normal life.
What helped you overcome your fear?
It’s just time. I came there every day, for several months – that’s how I got used to it. The desire to know helps to overcome fear. You still don’t understand what to expect, but your body and your unconscious stop reacting to this world as a hostile environment.
Maybe you have kept contacts with someone from the clinic’s patients?
For them, it seems to me, there are only those people who are with them at the moment. I came to the dispensary three or four months after filming, but, in my opinion, was more happy to see them than they were me. What is more significant for them is what is happening today, now. I do not remember this experience every day, but I certainly do remember every face and every destiny. In fact, such an experience – like every day we live – leaves an imprint on us, and we become different. I am what I am now – and thanks to the boarding school too.