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Stigma and ignorance are (bad) choices we make

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

It is understandable why some families protest so fiercely against psychiatric care for relatives with mental illnesses or who are in crisis. And, it is perfectly acceptable—though naive—to expect that everyone would have sufficient interest or minimal knowledge about mental health and mental illness, or, at a minimum, have a good perspective on the matter of the mind—we each having one—and of curative interventions if illness occurs.

The truth is, most people are ignorant about the appropriate response to someone living with mental illness or experiencing a mental crisis. But there are recommended options for care.

For example, in acute situations, hospitalisation and treatment are usually the considered options, and in other less severe cases, a client/individual may need a combination of a clinician’s intervention/visit, talk-therapy, and possibly a prescribed/supervised medicinal regimen.

Still, in other circumstances people can be taught to manage their health with social interventions—therapies such as creative and visual arts, exercising, reading, spirituality and mindfulness, horticulture, or even learning.

Each of which exists on a spectrum beginning with mental wellness and going all the way to the issue of mental ill health. If we were to consider remaining well then some of the same social prescriptions for recovery are among the very activities we need. People mostly begin life with a degree of mental wellness. Keeping the balance is a constant challenge though, from childhood through pre-teens, teens and adolescence, adulthood, and ageing.

There is such frailty and injury that can meet us on our journey and any of them can derail us. Derailment is a distinct possibility in each of our lives. Have you ever considered that you can find yourself in a place where your path is thwarted? Or do you live with the assurance that absolutely nothing can shift you? That mental ill health only happens to people that are weak?

Or that mental illnesses are not real but instead are just demonic issues that require religious intervention? Just suppose you experienced a mental crisis and could not make a decision for yourself, what would you want others to do for you if you were found to be at a place where you needed a doctor?

What intervention would your relatives most likely choose on your behalf? What if you wanted and needed a medical intervention and your next of kin, because of ignorance and stigma, decided that all you needed was a “bath,” even though you may become worse and in spite of the fact that an early intervention could alleviate long-term complications?

Have you ever considered that you can be in this position? No one has immunity from mental ill health. No one. These have been the contemplations offering me comradeship for the past few weeks. I have seen enough in this life to know what is possible in the realm of psychological/mental health. I have often heard exclamations at the news of someone we know experiencing a mental crisis.

The incredulity of our responses bespeaks the ignorance in which we choose to exist. The fact that we immediately begin to psychoanalyse the individual exposes an entrenched stigma.

Sometimes, in those volleys of unawareness and bigotry, I suffer the setback of feeling like people are not listening, hearing, believing, or changing. I wonder: “Do people really care about these matters of the mind or should I stop trying to educate and advocate?”

And it is not that I haven’t seen the difference these relentless toils have made over the years. I have.

But when ignorance is so loud and presumptuous, and when stigma is so prevalent and powerful that families/relatives prefer their loved ones to suffer rather than accept they need (and get them) psychiatric care, it really weighs the spirit down.

n CAROLINE C RAVELLO is a strategic communication and media professional and a public health practitioner. She holds an MA with Merit in Mass Communications (University of Leicester) and is a Master of Public Health With Distinction (The UWI). Write to: [email protected]


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