Remember the mental health awareness course I went on last week? It was Part 2 yesterday. The same ideas about depression being more of a lifestyle choice than an illness were not only revisited but reinforced by the trainers. After one too many discussions about mental health issues as if the people affected by them were separate and somewhat inferior to our group, I left.
This is a big thing for me. The slightest hint of conflict makes me stammer. Asserting myself makes my legs turn to jelly and I come out in a cold sweat. In truth, ‘asserting myself’ could be short-hand for ‘probably going to throw up on the other person any minute now’. I was very polite about it, waiting until people were moving around so as not to make a scene, but I left nonetheless. And told the trainers why I was doing so.
It wasn’t a decision I made because of one outrageously offensive statement, it came about because the training comprised of a steady stream of unchallenged misconceptions and discussions that reinforced that the people present were different – and better – than those who have mental health issues. After I had tried to challenge what was going on, one of the trainers made an obvious attempt to point out that her friend had depression. It reminded me of the time my ex-father-in-law tried to tell me he wasn’t racist because he’d been to Africa.
An insidious form of injustice.
People often suggest that prejudice around mental health doesn’t exist. They’re labouring under the illusion that prejudice happens as distinct events – losing the job we love or not getting an interview for a new one because we have mental health issues. They think it’s about being mocked in the street for shuffling along talking to ourselves, or the times you’re followed by a bunch of kids on your estate shouting “psycho” and “you’re mental you are”. And yes, all those things have happened to me.
Prejudice is not just about the times where members of society are proud to display their ignorance about an issue or are desperate to separate themselves from whichever poor soul it is they’re abusing. If it was it would be so much easier to deal with. Prejudice is an insidious form of injustice that steadily eats away at your self-esteem until you doubt if you were ever as ‘good enough’ as other people. To not fall victim to its poison you need to be ever-vigilant and that’s exhausting – particularly when you’re already fighting the Witch of Misery.
Yesterday, group participants wanted to clearly set themselves apart as ‘mental health professionals’ rather than ‘service users’, which is daft because whatever group you’re part of, stats suggest that ¼ of you will experience mental health issues. You can make a Venn diagram of ‘people with mental health issues’ and ‘mental health professionals’, however much the latter wish you couldn’t.
It was all too reminiscent of a Lib Dem press release last September. You probably missed it – it disappeared very quickly – but at stupid o’clock in the morning I read about Nick Clegg’s commitment to increase funding for mental health treatments. And at the bottom were the words “A Lib Dem spokesperson said that Mr Clegg would like to point out that he himself has never suffered from mental health issues.”
There’s a big lump of prejudice right there, wrapped up in a lovely bow of ignorance.
Does the Minister for Health, when announcing his intentions to increase funding for diabetes care feel the need to point out that he has never suffered from diabetes himself? No. When revealing that the UK would be giving £5m of aid to help survivors of the Nepal earthquake, did the PM have to point out that he had never been to Nepal? No. (I don’t actually know whether the PM has been to Nepal or not, but you get my point.) So why does someone need to make it clear that they don’t have personal experience of mental health issues?
We all have preconceptions about other people and those ideas are born from years of experiences, from the way we were raised to casual conversations around the water cooler or in the pub. Ideas are often formed with very few of the facts to hand and form the backbone of how we interact with others. They usually come about from a reluctance or inability to practice empathy. Most of the time we don’t even know that these ideas are there but they are, influencing every word that we speak or write and dictating our reaction to a thousand and one situations.
To hurt or to heal? You choose.
After my psychiatrist’s tactlessness had set the wheels in motion for a really bad spell, I met with him and my care coordinator to talk about how I felt. In that meeting he said “I’m not going to sit here and think about every word I say in case it upsets you”. Well, yes he should. It’s kind of his job to communicate with me in a way that means I can hear what he’s saying and use it to recover. And if we’re not getting it right, we need to stop automatically placing blame with the other person (so easy to do when you work with people with mental health issues) and think about the attitudes and beliefs that inform our words.
We need to see that there are real people behind the labels we consciously or unconsciously attach to them. Whatever differences there are, they’re basically the same as us. People with mental health issues bleed when they are cut. We hurt when we’re rejected. We cry with shame when we’re made to feel like freaks. I have managed to solve that one though – I just go round the whole time thinking I’m a freak and simply smile in happy agreement when people make me feel that way. Shuts them up but my insides still hurts like hell. Eckhart Tolle says this about prejudice:
Prejudice of any kind implies that you are identified with the thinking mind. It means you don’t see the other human being anymore, but only your own concept of that human being. To reduce the aliveness of another human being to a concept is already a form of violence.
The consequences of prejudice are violent. They damage, hurt and cause injury. The words you use today can either hurt or heal. Whether we like it or not, it’s up to every one of us to choose. So what’s it to be?
When it comes to ending discrimination, words are way mightier than swords, but I get the sinking feeling that encouraging people to think and challenge their own belief systems is a far harder battle to wage than the odd bout of bloodshed.