The Best Christmas Story I Know


When we see a disabled or physically handicapped person, we sympathize with their plight in life. How often do we sympathize with the plight of mentally handicapped persons? If you’re like me, probably not much. A new government study reveals that mental illness is the most undertreated and undiagnosed condition facing Americans today.

According to the new government study, one in five Americans suffer from mental illness and of those suffering from mental illness, few receive treatment. According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 45 million Americans suffered from mental illness in 2009 and the mental illnesses ranged from major depression to more serious problems such as suicide attempts.

Fewer than four in ten persons suffering from mental illness received treatment for their mental health condition, according to the study. Not surprisingly, the study found a major link between mental illness and alcoholism and drug abuse. Mental illness was also more likely among the unemployed, young adults and women.

Here’s a scary number: according to the study, more than 8 million had serious thoughts of suicide and 1 million tried to carry them out. These are staggering numbers and worse of all, the majority of persons suffering from mental illness receive no treatment at all.

Enough with the doom and gloom in the Holiday season. I want to share with you my experience that changed my entire outlook of persons suffering from psychiatric illness.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, a homeless person, known as the “Birdman”, in my hometown in upstate New York came to my church for mass on Sunday mornings. The Birdman always sat in the front pew and he wore multiple levels of dirty and torn clothing. A pungent smell emanated from the Birdman that you could smell from a distance away. As you an imagine, few parishioners sat near the Birdman during mass and few had the courage to go anywhere near him. In fact, when the Birdman sat in the front pew, most parishioners subtly moved to get a few rows away from him. At the end of mass, few members of the church spoke with the Birdman or even acknowledged him. Most looked down at the ground when walking by the Birdman to avoid making eye contact with him. This went on for years.

As you can imagine, the Birdman suffered from serious psychological illness and he was hanging on by a thread to his sanity. The Birdman no longer fit into our society and even those with the best intentions would not dare engage him in conversation. As a kid, I adopted the conventional wisdom of my friends and peers and did my best to avoid the Birdman. Then, one summer day, everything changed.

While driving home one Sunday morning about a block away from church with my mother, I saw the Birdman from a distance down the street. As our car slowly approached the Birdman, negative thoughts entered my mind about the man who was a pariah in our small town. The thoughts of an eight year old were pretty simple: “man, what a disgusting man”.

To my horror, my mother slowed our car as we approached the Birdman and when our car pulled up next to him, I could not believe we were stopping. My mother opened the passenger side window and asked the Birdman if he wanted a ride to where he was going. The Birdman got in, and we took him to his group home a few blocks away.

Few words were said that day between my mother and the Birdman, but a very simple gesture changed my view of mental illness that day forever. Instead of viewing the Birdman as a despicable, smelly man, my mother treated him as a human being worthy of respect and kindness.

When the Birdman got out of our car that day, he didn’t say thank you. Perhaps this simple act of kindness was forgotten the next day by the Birdman, but a little eight year old boy learned a lesson that he never forgot.

In this Holiday season, I give thanks for this great gift.