I was standing on a street corner, waiting to cross on my way to a meeting at a large public hospital. A man in his 40s walked down the sidewalk behind me, staring straight ahead. He was alone, but was carrying on an animated conversation about the government’s failings.
The lights changed and I started to walk across the street. In the crosswalk coming toward me was a woman in her 30s, also staring into the middle distance and taking no notice of me. She was alone, but was carrying on an animated conversation about how the big banks are ruining the country.
As I said, neither took any notice of me, but I knew them both. One works as a cashier at the pharmacy I use and the other is a long-term psychiatric patient with schizophrenia. One had on a barely visible Bluetooth, the other has been engaged in discussions with imagined others long before the technology was invented.
But without my prior contacts with these two people, I would never have known that one of them had a serious mental illness. These fortuitous encounters make me wonder if these new technologies have an unintended but welcome destigmatizing function. Where before people might have shunned a mentally ill person who seemed to be talking to himself, today they usually assume that he’s just chatting on a BlueTooth or similar device.