Every so often in life we are confronted with difficult questions. Struggling to come up with clear answers, we often convince ourselves to stop asking the questions. When it comes to mental health and addiction, difficult questions seem to be the only questions available right now. We must fight the impulse to give up on these questions for it is these very questions that are a pre-requisite to progress. With this in mind, we explore a tough question that currently faces the mental health community: Can we educate the public such that weakness is no longer seen as the cause of mental illness and addiction, while encouraging those suffering to be strong and courageous in their fight to heal themselves?
Strength vs. Weakness
Educating the public is an art. Before even beginning to inform, the first step in the education process is the monumental task of addressing the misinformation and misperception that firmly forms the basis of the collective understanding. Michael Howlett, the Chair on the Board of Directors at Healthy Minds Canada, writes: “Most Canadians don’t realize the extent of the real problem we face in this country, not only in mental health but also addictions and long term care.” This understanding, or rather misunderstanding, is particularly stubborn when it comes to mental illness and addiction because the sheer scope of misinformation is so pervasive that it has weaved its way into the very fabric of our social dialogue – quite simply, the language we have grown accustomed to using is rooted in misperception.
Not surprisingly, many of the key proponents of mental health today are engaged in spirited public education campaigns aimed at altering the language we use. Howlett explains, “Mental Health is somewhat new to us all so education helps us to understand.” The thrust of many these campaigns usually centres around the notion that mental illness and addiction are NOT a product of weakness. The idea behind this shift is clear: The root to acceptance and care is through compassion and the public’s appetite for compassion is simply not stimulated by weakness. In fact, weakness often incites blame which sadly washes away the road to compassion. Public perception is such that mental illness and addiction can be directly attributed to the sufferer – something they failed to do, or something they were too weak to overcome and control. So the reasoning is sound – the public must be made to see that those afflicted with mental health concerns are suffering from an illness – they are sick not weak – a phrase made popular by Michael Landsberg’s powerful new platform.
“In any illness,
strength and courage is
what gets us through.”
– Michael Howlett
But what does this shift in language away from weakness do to the actual patient suffering from mental health concerns? Put differently, does this shift in language conflict with any of the important messages needed by those suffering? For starters, what is the message to anyone suffering?
Howlett notes, “In any Illness, strength and courage is what gets us through,” and mental illness is no different. No doubt there are many facets of the message that change in varying degrees depending on the patient – however one essential point always remains: There is no way to convalesce from addiction and mental illness without strength and courage on the part of those suffering. Howlett says, “Strength is a necessary attribute in helping any person with problems, sometimes we just have to help them find it.” Medicine and therapy are critical aides in this process but they are not replacements for strength and courage on the part of the sufferer. Howlett notes, “Patients must be helped to find the inner strength to help themselves.” The point is, getting better and staying better is not something given to you it is something you must courageously fight for and ultimately take for yourself. There is a necessarily prescriptive element of action in all treatment and anything that turns the sufferer into a totally passive agent, necessarily impedes the road to wellness.
With this, we once again arrive at the tough question we started with. Can we educate the public such that weakness is no longer seen as the cause of mental illness and addiction, while encouraging those suffering to be strong and courageous in their fight to heal themselves? The point is, educating the public cannot come at the expense of rendering the patient helpless. Since we know we must continue to empower the patient, then the question really is, will the public still heed the message that the patient is not to be blamed while we encourage those suffering to be strong?
Striking a Delicate Balance
Healthy Minds Canada ran a wonderful campaign that shows how people encounter a mentally ill person by comparing it to a pedestrian being hit by a car. Onlookers quickly gather and then promptly leave him while he is still lying prone on the street. They get tired of his injury, they don’t believe the severity of his injuries. The ad is a spoof because clearly the man is seriously hurt. The point is, we would not leave a clearly injured man on the street so why would we leave someone struck down by mental illness? The theme this ad plays on is disbelief and this is the key to our discussion: People don’t really believe the severity with which others suffer from mental illness and addiction. But why? The answer to this question may provide the platform to our public education campaigns; campaigns that absolve fault without surrendering the message of empowerment.
To be blunt, at the root of this disbelief lies ignorance and vanity. For starters, disbelief creeps in because of the perceived familiarity with mental health concerns. They are so seemingly common that they tend to be brushed away. We erroneously dismiss mental illness and addiction under the false premise that we too have experienced the very same ailment at one time or another. For the most part, this is how we encounter acquaintances, co-workers, or friends who confront us with their mental health concerns – we fail to understand the true nature of their suffering.
“Strength is a necessary attribute in helping any person with problems, sometimes we just have to help them find it.”
– Michael Howlett
Of course, we all struggle with mental strife, with ups and downs, with breaking difficult habits, but these struggles are thank-fully minor disruptions to our otherwise stable lives. These minor disruptions unfortunately will have us believe that we know exactly what someone who truly suffers from mental health and addiction experience. We will attempt a few placating passes at resolution because naturally, we want to reassure them that everything is going to be fine and after all, we too have suffered as they do now and we overcame it, so we think. This erroneous judgement is not malice, just ignorance. We dismiss because we have failed to properly appreciate the varying degrees of severity with which mental illness and addiction afflict certain individuals. When dealing with mental health and addiction issues we often make powerful assumptions that are nearly always incorrect. These are the assumptions that must be adjusted. In no uncertain terms, the message to the public must be the following: When dealing with someone with mental health concerns ASSUME that you do NOT fully understand what they are going through. This approach will ensure that what you don’t know, does not impede what you choose to do on behalf of those suffering, in short, you are inclined do everything you can.
Where ignorance guides our understanding of mental health concerns with acquaintances, vanity guides us when dealing with our loved ones who suffer. Simply put, we do not want to believe that our loved ones are suffering and that we are unable to help them. This realization makes us feel powerless and scared and so often, we ignore it and deny it. We do not want others to judge them or us! What does it say that my wife is depressed or my child plagued by anxieties? Our own assumptions and fears are at play here, as are our own conceptions of the stigmas surrounding mental health and addiction. Vanity inclines us to hide away what is absolutely in need of light. The message to the public must emphatically be the following: While it may be painful to acknowledge that a loved one is suffering from mental illness or addiction, the road to recovery is only lit by extinguishing denial. Is this painful for us? Yes! Being compassionate, by definition, means to suffer with someone and to share in his or her suffering for there is no other route to wellness.
At the end of day, sick or weak there is no difference, all there is, is someone in need be it a loved one, a friend, or a co-worker calling out to us in desperation, looking for repose, for relief, or for reprieve. If we take to heart the points above we can dispel the disbelief that numbs our impulse to support those suffering. How should we respond? What should we do? Well imagine for a moment your neighbour has just lost his wife. How would you treat him? Would it matter how she died? Would you seek to find blame in his loss? Would you question his suffering? Would you set a deadline to his grieving? Not likely. What is likely, is that you would support him in any way you could. You would not look to provide remedies but rather encourage him to stay strong, to be brave, to endure and I wager that you would continue to do this until you saw him back on his feet. Why? Because you know there is no one to blame, no quick fix, just care to be given. It is just that simple and it is no different when encountering someone afflicted by mental illness and addiction. I would go so far as to wager that you might even bake them a pie and bring it over at some point. Would you do the same if your neighbour told you that his wife was suffering from mental illness? Is the support any less needed here? Any less justified? Absolutely not!
This analogy speaks to the conundrum facing mental illness and addiction but there is hope. It is possible to educate the public without limiting the message of empowerment needed by those suffering. We must take great pains to delineate a subtle message that turns the discussion away from blame by removing the impulse to enquire about fault because the question of fault is irrelevant here. It shouldn’t be a matter of sick or weak instead, it is a matter of need born from those suffering, presented to us. As human beings, we are constantly called on by others and we must take great care to harness and nurture the impulse to answer this call for without it, we are all slightly diminished. Perhaps what we need most right now, is to remind ourselves for whom the bell tolls.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
By John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
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