Who is the One with Mental Illness?

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Buck Black offers psychotherapy for anger issues through his practice in the Lafayette Indiana area (www.BuckBlack.com) via phone, email, and office visits. He ...Read More

I once worked at a psychiatric hospital as a therapist assessing people for psychiatric hospitalization or referral to community resources. One day, as I was crossing the parking lot to the hospital, I observed a man in his 40s who appeared to be trying to pry the doors open to the psychiatric hospital. The doors were locked for the weekend. The man was repeatedly yelling “its locked…I can’t get in.” There was a staff member inside the building who appeared to just be standing there looking at him.

I observed this man’s behavior from about 50 feet away. The longer I watched, the harder he pulled the door. He actually flexed the door enough to expose about a six-inch gap at the bottom. However, he was unable to gain entry. I decided that I needed to speak up and do my job. I said “Sir, I want to help. It looks like you need to get into the hospital.” He just looked at me. I said, “Lets go in and talk about it.” He again looked at me strangely. About that time, the staff member opened the door for him. He yelled, “The door just won’t open!” I followed behind him. Once I got inside the first set of doors, he loudly said, “Stop. I don’t know who you are!” I identified myself and he again looked at me as if I were rather odd. He told me that I could not come in any farther until someone identified me. At this point, I was thinking he was paranoid and I was worried that he could become violent. I was starting to get nervous and wished this was not the start of my shift.


After a bit of a standoff, the man asked the other staff member if she knew me. She identified me as a therapist who is coming in for the next shift. He then asked her if she was sure because he does not believe it. I then asked who he was. He said he was the maintenance man. Hardly believing him, I asked the staff member if this were true, or if he was a patient. She said that he was indeed a maintenance man. At that point, he seemed to relax. He stated that he was testing the door locks because it was reported they were not working. He went on to say he thought I was a patient who was trying to gain unauthorized access. I then explained that he looked like a man with a severe psychiatric disorder who was trying to pull the doors off the hinges in order to get into the hospital.

What is mental illness? It depends on the culture and the context, as it seems. I thought for sure the maintenance man was severely mentally ill, as he thought the same about me. Sometimes, there are explanations for bizarre behavior!

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