Afraid to Talk to the Psychiatric Patient


Pastor Dave had always been a softy. He was the chubby boy who cared. The one helping in the kitchen when his siblings were outside and elsewhere. Taking care of his little sister after their mother diminished her with words. After seminary school, he knew he was designed for this.  He was destined to care for those who had needs.

Driving down Highway 79, he pulled over for the man shambling along the sidewalk, thumb out. Dave asked,

Where ‘ya going?

This wasn’t the first time Pastor Dave has picked up stinky, filthy people. He loved serving the homeless. His church had one of the largest programs for the homeless in their county and he knew that if he weren’t employed by the church, he’d be doing it anyway. That’s how he knew he was doing what he was brilliant at and when he saw this man sitting in the passenger seat, his energy went up.

Unfortunately, after fifteen years of picking up the homeless, Pastor Dave picked up someone who was hearing persecutory command type hallucinations. Pastor Dave was taken off guard with the first fist to his face. He wasn’t expecting the second either. Raising his arms to cover himself, he took several punches to his gut. Falling down, his head broke on the car frame and then asphalt below.

It was many months later, his jaw wired shut, and wet tears rolling down a scabbed face in my office that we met. I felt scared. I didn’t know what I feared at first. Yet somehow he nailed it for me when he told me that he didn’t know how to look at the world any more.

This attack on Pastor Dave’s body was an attack on his identity, his sense of self. His belief of what he thought his very DNA had been created to do was traumatized. It was like someone who had been raised to be a baker, was never able to get into a kitchen after fifteen years of bread and pastry dough. Pastor Dave was bewildered by his visceral response to even thinking about talking to someone with possible mental illness. He felt like throwing up looking at them. He shook. And without freedom to serve others, his energy dropped and dropped and became the vapor of a memory of some other person. That guy with energy was almost like a story of a previous acquaintance.

In my research about this topic, how to talk to a psychiatric patient, I’m learning about attitudes and stigma out there toward them. It’s incredible. But there are not many who take it to the street and help us just talk to each other.

Many months later, I asked Dave his answer. He said, at this point, he had become a psychiatric patient himself and supposed it just started there. With one’s self. Too good.

Everything starts and ends with Me.

I ask with you, how do we talk to psych patients?

When we say, “Give it up, give up the stigma, get the attitude of gratitude and get out there and be kind,” are we talking about getting into a shark tank? No. We’re not encouraging people to put themselves in a place of danger. What are we saying?

Question:  How do you talk to a psych patient? Please share your stories.

Self-care tip: Have a day knowing you are a person of value. Let this moment and then the next, for today, be one when you let yourself join into the great and the not so great parts of who you are, more than a spectator, more than either-or, more than healthy brain or unhealthy brain. Keep on!

2 thoughts on “Afraid to Talk to the Psychiatric Patient

  1. I interact with people with mental illness everyday… I many times we don’t know what to expect, especially if they have been diagnosed with a persistent and severe mental illness. The most important thing is to remain calm, keep a distance, and be supportive . Always having a cell phone incase there is a need to call 911.

    • Thank you Noel! Not knowing what to expect is a perceived barrier between the community and the mentally ill. We like to think of what is socially appropriate, what is “normal”, and then to validate someone who performs and lives otherwise is a threat to that. Thank you again! Keep on.

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