My wife Doris and I have had the opportunity to speak to people from all over the world about their experience with mental illness. On one occasion, we met with a couple and their twenty-something son that had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
We spent the better part of an hour discussing various aspects of the treatment I was receiving. I wasn’t sure how interested he was in the discussion, as he said very little and generally avoided eye contact. Towards the end, his mother asked if he had any questions. He nodded.
“I just want to know, Sean…did you get your friends back?”
He didn’t ask about the treatment program, symptom management, timeframe for reducing medication, etc. To him, and to many who suffer from mental illness, those things were all simply a means to an end: getting back a sense of acceptance and belonging.
As we continue to have these conversations we’ve discovered that, while everyone wants us to understand their circumstances, it’s nothing compared to their longing to regain the acceptance of their friends and loved ones. The negative stigma and isolation that comes from revealing one’s struggle with mental illness can sometimes be as difficult (or worse) than dealing with the illness itself.
Awareness makes a separation between the illness and the individual. At best it is intrapersonal – it’s what I know about you. This may lead to tolerance, but not necessarily social integration.
Unlike awareness, acceptance is interactive and inclusionary. It says you are welcome here and you belong despite what you may be going through. It erases dividing lines that we have a tendency to draw. I believe it’s one of the main ingredients in the glue that holds society together.
There is a fear that says, “If I accept a person with mental illness, I will be condoning undesirable and potentially violent behavior.” The fact is, a person with mental illness is more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator of it.
Unlawful or destructive behavior must certainly be dealt with in an appropriate manner. However, focusing continually on the problem often makes it worse. Without getting into the psychology of positive and negative reinforcement, let’s just say that it is absolutely possible to accept someone without being an accomplice of poor conduct. In my opinion, accepting and affirming someone are two of the best things you can do to empower them to overcome the challenges they may be facing. After all, it takes strength, not shame, to overcome weakness.
When I was ill, I brought a great deal of undesirable and destructive behavior into our home. What gave me hope and empowered me for recovery (after well-meaning medical professionals said it would likely never happen) was having someone that was intimately acquainted with the situation, who accepted me (not the behavior) as is and had the ability to redirect my focus from my limitations to strengths.
In part one of this blog series we asked, is awareness enough? From my personal experience with mental health issues and my work in trying to help others, I’d say it’s an excellent starting point. But to build the healthy thriving communities we all want to be a part of, I believe it’s necessary to also extend a hand of welcome, recognize and affirm the value of people, and partner with those that are all too often excluded from the process.