Mental.IllnessA reader asked me last week why I focus so much on being sure to include everyone in the population of people diagnosed with mental illness, able to be diagnosed, or with a family member diagnosed. However uncomfortable it may be, the answer is simple:  it’s the truth. Nearly all of us are directly affected by mental illness.

I was reminded of this fact in a powerful Risking Connection® training  a few months ago.  The people in the class all worked with young people who were experiencing the challenges of independence as they aged out of the foster care system. We were discussing the power of assuming that people do the best they can, but some people in class just weren’t drinking that Koolaid.  Instead, some of the attendees were reinforcing the idea that “those people” who had mental illnesses were deliberately making staffs’ lives hard.

Then a young woman stood up.  She turned to the class.  She said, “Shame on you.  My brother is one of ‘those people’ you’re talking about.  And I know I’m not the only person in the room who has a family member with mental illness.  I know there are people in this room who have PTSD, depression and bi-polar disorder.  It is not okay for you to talk about the people we love like that.  No matter how difficult it is, we also love them. Shame on you!”  She sat and looked down.

The room fell quiet.  I stood, waiting.  As a facilitator, it’s hard to stand in that space of stunned silence, and yet it really doesn’t help to jump in to try to fix something.  Part of this training is helping others learn to increase their ability to tolerate discomfort without having to fix it, and in this case, I kind of needed to model it.  At least an eternity later, one of the senior members of the organization stood up, agreed with the young woman who spoke, and asked in the most direct way for forgiveness.

Before the young woman’s comment, the class had unintentionally created a division between “us” and “them” – a division that certainly didn’t exist.  Now how might pushing away the ownership of mental illness have helped them?  I suspect it has to do with the ways we bully and blame to avoid admitting we are much more like the people to whom we provide services than we’d like to admit.  Especially if a person’s symptoms are flagrant, extravagant, or dangerous, the more we can push away the person with a diagnosis – the more we can make them an “Other” – the less we fear that that we might be somehow like them at some point in our lives.  A friend of mine once said, “Some identities come with a high price.”

So the reason that I don’t differentiate between service providers in social service and mental health settings and service recipients is simple.  Everyone knows someone who receives services.  If you’re a therapist, hopefully have your own therapist – thus you provide and receive services.  If you know three other people, chances are that one of you (and part of another!) has a mental health-related diagnosis.  Our need to push this fact away makes it easy to dehumanize others.

What to do?

1.       Check your own beliefs.  What do you really believe about others, especially others who are diagnosed with mental health concerns?  Ask yourself how your beliefs insulate you from the consequences of mental illness while magnifying the consequences for the person diagnosed.

2.       Set the example in your work and social settings. Instead of using language and power to push away people with mental health diagnoses, accept diagnosed individuals as common and essential parts of your community.

3.      Remember: one in four.  One of four people has had, will have, or has, a diagnosis.  Look around at the people around you and think this through. Ask yourself: Are these people are to be feared and isolated?  Or are they to be care for and loved?

4.       Recognize how powerful and healing it is to consciously choose to value the people whom you serve in a deliberate and different way, especially as you advocate for others to do the same.

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