I recently visited John Umstead Hospital in Butner–not as a patient, I’m happy to report, but because I’ve been invited to participate in a national conference there this fall.

Every North Carolinian knows about Umstead and Dix, two of our largest state psychiatric hospitals. I mean, I read the paper and when it’s about those hospitals, it’s always bad news. Someone has gotten loose–you know, a mental patient.

Since my mother is schizophrenic, when I received the invitation I felt I had already toured enough psychiatric wards to last me a lifetime. But the writer in me is a curious nag, so off I went.

Previously, I’d only driven by Butner on the way to Virginia. This time, I arrived early for my hospital visit, so I detoured through the town, noting the old military campus, still maintained by the National Guard. I drove down Central Avenue, the main drag, past A, B, C and D streets, until I turned at the intersection of G and Central. I wondered if all military bases are labeled this way, or did no one care enough about the area to bother renaming the streets after the plat map was done?

The hospital reminded me a bit of my old elementary school, with its green linoleum flooring and white cinderblock walls. It’s not a fancy place like Duke or UNC Hospitals, but it was clean and well lit and smelled faintly of floor polish.

I was led around the Clubhouse by a burly young patient I’ll call Ben. The Clubhouse is a unit designed to help patients who are beginning the transition to the world outside. It has a snack room, a small thrift store, an art room and a place to work on the computer. Classes focus on adjusting to life outside; patients learn how to start a conversation, or discuss concerns about their transition.

I also visited the substance abuse facility. Many people with severe mental illness self-medicate with street or prescription drugs and alcohol. Yet, mix psychoses with alcohol and drugs and the result is a horrible tangle. This unit focuses on simultaneously stabilizing the psychosis and the addiction so that effective treatment can get underway.

On both units, I mingled with patients and staff and never once felt scared or uncomfortable. The facility is old, but that hasn’t deterred the staff and patients from investing in the place. Walls were sponge-painted yellow, plants and potted flowers filled the sitting areas, teaching rooms were well-used and filled with workbooks. One wall was decorated with a colorful quilt memorializing several former patients who were killed in a bus accident seven years ago. Maybe no one cared enough to name the streets around the hospital, but the patients and staff cared enough to make it their home.

Now, the state is threatening to shut down Dix and has already begun cutbacks at Umstead. That we would leave people with nowhere to go for the treatment they so desperately need is nothing short of an atrocity. And like most atrocities, it is based in self-loathing.

The patients at Butner and Dix are people you know. They are my mother, our brothers and sisters, our children. (I’d wager they are even our legislators’ relatives.) But how many of us are will admit that we have needed the help of hospitals like Umstead and Dix? I wonder when people will speak of severe mental illness in the matter of fact way we speak of cancer. Schizophrenia alone affects fully 1 percent of the world’s population–61 million people.

I realize not everyone can visit Umstead and Dix. So I’d like to extend the following invitation to state legislators and to you, gentle reader: Ask three people if they know someone who is severely mentally ill. When their stories start to flow, be quiet and listen. Then, when your friend has finished speaking, ask yourself: What happens to my mother, to your brothers and sisters and children and neighbor’s children when they need treatment? Where will they go for long-term help?

Oh, well. It’s really not a big deal. It’s just a bunch of mental patients anyway, right? After all, they’re not like us.