Yesterday I heard someone describe a person as needing to put on a tinfoil hat. It was supposed to be a funny put-down — but it really wasn’t very funny to me.
In 1981, when I was fresh out of college and working for U.S. Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie in Washington, D.C. as a legislative aide, one of my jobs was to stay late on weeknights and prepare responses to constituent correspondence. Mr. Wylie took his job seriously, and he believed that every constituent who took the time to write a letter deserved a thoughtful response. We would spend hours going through every letter, talking about the response and whether there was something we could do to help.
One of our regular correspondents was a man who, literally, wore a tinfoil hat. He was a veteran who was convinced that the U.S. government was broadcasting brain waves at him, and he wore a tinfoil hat because he thought it helped. He wrote letters to try to get Mr. Wylie’s help in stopping the brain wave broadcasts. I chuckled at his first letter, but they kept coming, usually several a week, and it stopped being funny. I was worried about what the man might do, but Mr. Wylie said he had been receiving letters from the man for years and he was harmless. From information in his letters, we learned that the man had been treated at VA hospitals and was an intermittent participant in mental health programs but was suspicious of them, too.
Every week, this poor, tormented man took the time to write a few long letters beseeching us to help him. Every week we reassured him that there was no evil government program and urged him to please go see a doctor and get medical help. I felt sorry for him, but there was nothing more we could do . . . and the pleading letters kept coming.
Mental illness is not funny.