Mental health problems are real, but the phrase “mental illness” often evokes images far removed from reality.
Stigma about mental illness is so pervasive as to be embedded in our day-to-day vocabulary, exemplified when people say things such as “She’s crazy!” or “He’s mentally ill!” when they don’t literally mean it. Media attention to crimes committed by people who may have been mentally ill ignores the fact that those diagnosed with a mental illness are far more likely to be victims of a crime than perpetrators.
All too often,even clinicians, social workers and social service agencies perpetuate this negative stigma. If you deal with mental illness, you may be familiar with that faraway look that someone gives you when you say or do something they don’t believe to be “normal.” “Normal” and “mental health” are concepts that are socially determined, and may have little to do with a person’s ability to function. Up until 1968, same-sex romantic relationships were regarded as a mental illness. Jonathan Metzl’s book The Protest Psychosis–How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease provides a disturbing case study on how the definition of mental illness changed in one state hospital in Michigan, how it became intertwined with racism and the cultural assumptions associated with those changes.
Mental illness is real, and there are a growing number of effective treatments for various mental illness. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the mental health of an individual without also talking about the collective mental health of the society that person lives in.
Understanding and sensitivity for people dealing with mental illness is growing. Through my internship at Chrysalis, Inc. I learned from people who were dealing with severe and persistent mental illness. These people were not only my clients, but also colleagues certified as peer specialists. It is wonderful to see that those dealing with mental health issues have been able to organize and advocate for themselves, and begin to change how we understand mental health.
I have experience working with people with severe and persistent mental illness. I view all my clients as my equals, my teachers, and as full partners in their healing and recovery efforts.