Recognizing and dealing with mental illness

Tragedies occur all around us because of mental illness. We need to put our heads together and find a way to help with the problem. Inaction is not an option.

chalkboard with help message

Some years ago I was in Paris to interview a person for a senior role in our company. We had not yet opened an office there, so I met him at one of the cafés near the Eiffel Tower and Napoleon’s Tomb. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked well for coffee and a first interview. Our conversation was easy and direct. His English was perfect so the discussion moved along quickly and in depth. The café had emptied its breakfast clientele, so it was only the single stragglers who lingered over coffee and papers remaining in the restaurant. We had enough quiet and privacy.

Our concentration was broken abruptly by the screams of a woman seated two tables away. Although the screams were muffled, they were unmistakable – the woman needed help. Without hesitation, the man who I was interviewing leapt up and went to her assistance. I whirled around to see a disheveled man in a long, dark coat wildly stabbing at the woman with a pen. He had silently brushed past our table moments earlier on his way to her, barely noticeable. Paralyzed by surprise, the woman was unprepared for the wild stabbing that ensued, and all she could do was raise her arms to protect her face and scream. Through the swift actions of the candidate, the man was quickly neutralized, the pen removed from his hand. Restaurant staff helped move the attacker outside, where he stood for some minutes wildly yelling incomprehensible things. Then he quietly shuffled down the street, nonthreatening and unremarkable.

We turned to the woman to understand what had happened. She said that she had been sitting quietly writing in her book when a man walked up to her and grabbed the pen she had been using. She had no time to react or think. All she could do was scream feebly and raise her arms to protect her face. She sustained some superficial punctures and was taken from the café to have her wounds cleaned.

Surreal experience

While still shaken, the candidate and I had some time to reflect on what had happened. It seemed surreal. We were surprised at how quickly the attack had occurred. I complimented the candidate on both his rapid response and his total lack of self-concern as he rushed to help the woman. The café staff then told us that the man was known to them. He had been hanging around outside the café for some time, but this was the first time that he had come in. His typical modus operandi was verbal harassment of passersby and wild gesturing. They would invariably have to go outside and ask him to move on several times during the day. Occasionally it would take more force to move him away.

Amateur diagnosis: mentally ill

Then came the revelation – they all knew the man to be mentally ill. We pressed on this point, and they told us that prolonged exposure to and observation of the man led them to this amateur diagnosis. They indeed portrayed a troubled and neglected individual, a man who had no home, who behaved at times in a belligerent and threatening manner and at others begged for scraps of food. He was needy but wouldn’t take help. He needed shelter but slept under a piece of cardboard.

Harsh reality of mental illness

The tragedy of mental illness is everywhere. It is not confined to a country, a gender or an age. Gun and knife violence erupts in schools and public places. For some, no warning signs are evident, and family and friends are shocked as much as they are horrified when loved ones kill or injure. For others, the warning signs have been there for some time, but repeated attempts for help have gone unanswered.

Myriad reasons explain why help hasn’t been forthcoming, but that is little comfort to the individuals and families who are impacted by the harsh reality of mental illness. It doesn’t have to culminate in a violent event to have a damaging effect – losing loved ones or watching them simply waste away takes a toll on many. Time after time, we hear that people are simply falling through the cracks of a system that was never scaled to handle the volume of people in need.

It’s hard to imagine what it will take to make mental health a priority for all. On one level, the fact that there are so many visible issues would seem to make the need obvious to those in a position to do something. But then, one could consider that the scale is daunting on both a human and a financial level.

Hard or not, we must start by agreeing that something needs to be done and get on with it.


We hired the person being interviewed for many good reasons – but not because of what he did in this situation.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.