Sympathy, pity and mental illness in our community


Another adventure on the public transit brought into focus that there is a fine line between sympathy and pity. Sometimes a person offers benevolence yet the person to whom it is offered receives pity. Moreover, how we interpret a transaction may depend on our state of mind.

The two main characters in this episode are a Black woman of indeterminate age (she could have been anywhere between 20 and 40) and a middle aged White man. On an especially hot weekend afternoon, the thin Black woman was dressed in a dark fleece ‘hoodie’ zippered all the way up, layered over what looked like another fleece sweatshirt that may have once been white. Completing the outfit was a pair of very loose, green plaid, flannel pajama pants. On her head, she wore a close fitting felt beret.

Her eyes conveyed that disconnected look that showed plainly she was not in the same space as the rest of the people in the subway car. Although there were many seats available, she remained standing while, at the same time, transmitting a desire to feel welcome to sit.

She made eye contact with no one, oblivious to those who openly stared at her; one of them, an older White man with a potbelly, wearing summer shorts and a Jimmy Buffet T-shirt. It would be impossible to guess just exactly what it was that compelled him to approach her, but he did, and in so doing reached into his wallet and offered her a $10 bill.

Now, some people observing this might have been touched by this seeming act of kindness, but it became an awkward moment because the woman, whose interpretation of this could be guessed at, began to cower. So, he gently but with some persistence directed her to take the money. This went on for minutes on end, but who knows, to her it could have been a lifetime. He even offered a suggestion. “Buy yourself a meal,” he said to her.

She said not a word but, at the same time that she held her position, still managed to shrink away from the man. She never took his offer, never looked at him. With some resignation, he finally gave up trying to show her his kindness and returned to his seat. Once he got off the train, she finally sat down, as if whatever battle she was continuing in order to uphold her pride ended with his departure.

During the entire episode, her implacid expression never once wavered or shifted. So remarkable that even within her insanity she maintained her sense of dignity. Whatever her troubles, she found her own way of saying that she would not be pitied, even by some well-meaning stranger who felt sure he was just trying to be kind.

As important as it would be to know the numbers, there are no comprehensive data on mental illness across the Black population. Yet we know that one in five Canadians experience some form of mental illness along the spectrum from a period of illness to chronic illness, from mild to severe. Among African Canadians the stressors associated with racism results in a higher rate of depression than in the larger population. Yet the reach of treatment for mental health problems among our population does not match the rate of the prevalence of the condition.

Depression is not a sign of weakness of character. It is a very human response to the onslaught of life challenges for many. Left untreated, as with so many other illnesses, it will only grow worse.

If you are wondering whether you are experiencing depression, look for symptoms that include not being able to fully enjoy anything in everyday life. If you are angry all the time, that is also a sign of depression. Loss of appetite or, conversely, overeating, and the inability to sleep well are also symptoms. Your doctor can help, but the first step must be the willingness to address the illness for what it is.

A note on buying political capital…

PM Harper using the word “security” appeals to his electorate by playing the ‘terror’ card thus: “…I think Canadians are pretty concerned when a whole boat of people comes – not through any normal application process, not through any normal arrival channel – and just simply lands. We will not hesitate to strengthen the laws if we have to because ultimately, as a government and as a fundamental exercise of our sovereignty, we are responsible for the security of our borders.”

Question: When seeking asylum, meaning one is facing desperate circumstances, what constitutes a “normal arrival channel”?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>