I'm feeling a little on-edge and emotional after reading a list from CBC titled "Top 10 Ways to Help a Person in Mental Health Crisis". Don’t get me wrong, educating the public about responding to a mental health crisis is in dire need. I would say most people I encounter today feel lost and confused (and unsupported) about how to respond when partners, friends, and family members struggle with the throws of emotional instability. There is a wealth of constructive information out there on the web. However, there is also a great deal of advice out there that subtly reinforces damaging stereotypes, further contributing to the mental health crisis we are in today.
Take for example this promo piece for CBC firsthand’s “Hold Your Fire” [a documentary on lethal encounters between police and the mentally ill that I actually found to be somewhat informative]. While this article has several useful points, there are 2 elements in particular I find immensely disturbing:
1. There is a picture of a seemingly homeless individual that comes up when reposting the article on social media. This perpetuates the stereotype that mental illness is predominantly a problem for those experiencing abject poverty.
Studies do confirm that folks struggling with homelessness are most likely to experience mental illness and that mental illness can worsen homelessness. However, homelessness does not guarantee mental illness and not all individuals reporting mental illness are homeless. There are great forces at play like negative stereotypes about people struggling with mental health that make it more difficult to hold a job or find affordable housing. Let’s please be careful when associating mental health with homelessness, as their relationship is more complex than we assume.
In my opinion, this stereotype serves an important purpose for many. For those of us privileged to have grown up in stable housing, this stereotype makes us feel safe; we can compartmentalize mental illness as happening to people in circumstances so very different from our own. It allows us to stay at a comfortable distance, to label mental health crises as something that happens to people in circumstances worlds away from us. However it can also blind us to mental health struggles within our family, social circles, and within ourselves, thus preventing us from reaching out and seeking help early on.
2. The article ends with an example that is unnecessarily violent:
“Try not to let emotion take over. Keep descriptions accurate: "He grabbed for child scissors and cut somebody's hand who reached for them." As opposed to: "He's stabbing people ... he's trying to kill people.””
The stereotype that those struggling with mental illness are more violent contributes immensely to stigma that continues to thrive, despite numerous studies indicating this is not true when compared to the general population. Let’s be clear: studies show that people diagnosed with mental illness are no more likely to exhibit violent behaviours than the general population. In fact, those living with severe mental illness are more likely to be the target of violence than the rest of the population. The stigma of violence associated with mental illness has devastating consequences, including discrimination, social exclusion, and homelessness.
Check out the CMHA's opinion on violence, mental health and public attitudes here if you're interested, it’s a great read: Violence and Mental Health: Unpacking a Complex Issue.
We need a more compassionate approach towards our friends, family, and wider community. A more accurate understanding of mental illness to at least chip off some of the stigma that can make a difficult situation so much worse. I hope that with time we can come to a place where our response as a community and society is constructive instead of destructive.
[Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I planned. Thanks for listening folks, and please be careful with words as they spell out our reality and shape our worlds.]
Brown, G., Cameron, L., Chambers, J., Cotton, D., Fritsh, R. … & Strong, A. (2011). Violence and Mental Health: Unpacking a Complex Issue. Canadian Mental Health Association: Ontario. Retrieved from: http://ontario.cmha.ca/public_policy/violence-and-mental-health-unpacking-a-complex-issue/#.Vwz5uxMrKRs
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2016). Top 10 Way to Help a Person in Mental Health Crisis. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/features/top-10-ways-to-help-a-person-in-mental-health-crisis
Canadian Institute for Health Information (2007). Improving the Health of Canadians: Mental Health and Homelessness. Ottawa: CIHI. Retrieved from: http://www.cpa.ca/cpasite/UserFiles/Documents/Practice_Page/mental_health_homelessness_en.pdf
Canadian Mental Health Association (nd). Stigma and Discrimination. Retrieved from: http://ontario.cmha.ca/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/stigma-and-discrimination/
Stuart, H. (2003). Violence and mental illness: an overview. World Psychiatry, 2(2): 121-124. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1525086/. PMC1525086