Mental illness advocates are used to debating. This is not surprising as all advocacy involves a lot of debate. We live in a society that has yet to agree on whether the toilet paper goes over or under, so it isn’t surprising that something as complex as being a mental illness advocate often brings out the claws.
We only have to look to Facebook to see the anger that some folks show toward political candidates they disagree with. Democrats and Republicans will be in conflict from now until the end of time. And, without muddying the waters with political debate, that makes sense. Those two parties are on different sides, with sometimes wildly different views.
But what about the massive disagreements of people who are, in theory, on the same side, who should have similar views?
Mental Illness Advocacy is Personal
Mental illness advocates deal with serious issues. They are life-threatening. But more than anything, they are personal. The outcomes fill a spectrum from inspirational to devastating. I work in an industry where the typical advocate is either a person living with mental illness or a person who has had a loved one, most often a close family member, suffer from or die from this illness.
Most of us have, on some level, watched someone we love suffer. The most affected of us will carry the emotional scars of someone we love having died. The loss is only compounded by the idea that, had we done something differently, this tragedy would not have occurred.
But most of us have no idea what it’s like to be that person living with the illness, experiencing the discrimination, managing the disease, being terrified of what is next, and suffering at great lengths due to not being healthy and, worrying about how we are negatively affecting our loved ones.
One size certainly does not fit all, even in the above cases. My mother’s experience with me is not identical to other mothers with their children. But family members quickly find common ground. And the same is true for people living with the illness. We find common ground with folks that have similar lived experiences.
All advocates started out on the same side on day one. We wanted better outcomes for people living with the horrors of this terrible disease. But, unfortunately, the fracture soon begins. People take their emotional journeys, powerful motivators, and consider them as inviolable truth. They say, “If I had only had done X, I’d be fine.” Or, “If my loved one had only had X, they would be fine.”
That may well be true. But personal experience does not public policy make. There is a big difference between the thought process of mental illness advocates and the thought process of people with a vested emotional connection. Let’s be honest, this is a complex social issue. In our society what people do not know about mental illness greatly outweighs what people do know.
Instead of coming together, we fight each other. We don’t focus on our similar views, we fight about our differences. And we fight publicly.
Mental Illness Advocates Are Publicly Displaying Differences
Far too often Mental illness advocates hide the similarities, and publicly display our differences.
The biggest fracture is people living with mental illness fighting the loved ones of people living with mental illness. In the community, this is known as family members versus consumers.
The family member side is considerably better funded, at least in Ohio. And, given the public stereotypes of the mentally ill, they have an easier sell: “The mentally ill don’t know any better and we need to help them.”
The consumer movement has an uphill battle because the first step is to convince the public we aren’t all violent and/or helpless. We need to show the public that there are positive outcomes, that people living with mental illness can and do live productive and meaningful lives.
The mental health community is divided. We should be on the same side, but we’re not. Not really. And we are asking the public to choose which of us to listen to.
We need to focus on what we all agree on: the mentally ill deserve care, dignity, respect, and a chance to live well.
This is something everyone can relate to, not just those involved in the debate, but the people watching, as well. And we need to lead by example . . .
. . . Or nothing will ever change.