a still from the Academy Award-winning film "Ryan" by Chris Landreth, produced by the NFB and Copper Heart Entertainment

We know what to do if we see somebody fall down the subway steps or crash their bike into a lamp-post – call 911 and try to provide some comfort until help arrives. But what about this scenario? Walking down the street you pass somebody talking to the air about aliens and it’s obvious they’re experiencing an episode of mental illness. I, for one, never know what to do and end up trying to avoid the person. But this is a sorry response born of fear and ignorance. Our culture sensationalizes the (rare) acts of violence committed by people with mental illness when, paradoxically, it’s this population which is the most vulnerable. As a result, we, or at least I, end up shunning those who may be deeply in need of help. So, what’s the right thing to do?

“It’s tricky,” says At Home participant and peer organizer, Joe Hatch, “You can’t just walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, you’re in trouble,’ because usually they don’t see it. When I was in mania, I didn’t realize it. I thought what I was doing made sense. So it’s not like helping somebody who broke their leg and knows they need help.”

Greg Richmond, project leader of At Home’s Vancouver Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team suggests the following simple advice: “Approach in a non-threatening way and ask if you can help.” This makes sense and it reminds me of my interview with Sam Tsemberis who stressed that Housing First was founded on a client-centred approach to the problem of homelessness and mental illness. “Of course,” says Richmond, “If you’re worried that the person’s safety is at risk, or that they pose a risk to others, you should call 911. But those instances are rare.”

What do you think? What’s your response when you see people struggling with mental illness in public?