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What Makes Someone Worthy of Help?
July 21, 2015
By Kelly Davis, MHA Policy and Programming Associate
After reading this Washington Post article about Alfred Postell, the Harvard Law graduate experiencing homelessness and diagnosed with schizophrenia, I was overwhelmed with frustration. While this man is important and deserves access to services, the story brings up important questions to ask in our mainstream discussion of mental health. The glaring stereotypes and what the article says about how we view certain populations in our society are worth discussing.
It appears that people are shocked specifically because this man is educated, but mental health disorders are prevalent throughout all groups in our society. While there are social determinants that no doubt increase an individual’s vulnerability that need to be addressed on a systemic level, receiving an education, even one from an esteemed school like Harvard, does not protect you from developing symptoms of mental health disorders. The opposite is true as well. Having a mental health disorder does not make you unintelligent or unable to achieve academic success.
Another point worth noting is what is not said in this article. A publication by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments indicated that as of January 2015, 11,623 people in the District of Columbia identified as experiencing homelessness. We know that a disproportionately large percent of the homeless population is exposed to trauma and has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Why are we not as outraged about the experiences of each of these individuals? What makes someone worthy of help or interest?
When issues on mental health and social justice are brought into the mainstream, it is important to be critical of how we discuss them. While I appreciate that the Washington Post article is highlighting the troubles faced by one man, I wonder if it reflects misguided stereotypes about what it takes to be deemed worthy of help or interest in our culture. We should provide Alfred Postell with the full spectrum of supports and services he wants and needs, just as we should help all others regardless of education level.