Walk a mile in their shoes

Although I don't watch much television, I recently I watched three programs where characters used the words crazy, psycho, or whack job to refer to people with mental illness. The entertainment world reflects what society believes.

So I'm not surprised when clients, still stunned by a diagnosis of depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder, tell me that anticipating the stigma they will encounter feels worse than the illness itself. And they know they will encounter it because, until their health problem began, they participated in it. We all do, often out of ignorance.

Stigma is negative judgment or attitudes towards individuals or groups of people based on a trait that sets them apart from others. It's one of the greatest barriers preventing people from seeking help. We usually associate stigma with racial or ethnic bias and we're rightfully proud of our progress towards eradicating prejudices based on race, culture, religion, or skin colour.

But one important frontier remains, as challenging as any other civil rights issue. The stigma of mental illness also identifies a group of people as different, unacceptable or undesirable and it, too, leads to discrimination.

Mental illness itself doesn't discriminate, touching people of all ages and from all walks of life. It appears as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or a host of other disorders.

Twenty per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness and approximately eight per cent of Canadian adults will have major depression at some point in their lifetime. This means mental illness will indirectly affect all Canadians through family members, friends or colleagues. People living with mental illness are in our homes, our workplaces, our schools, and our churches. Many cope in silence, afraid to admit their distress because they dread the response. They expect to be misunderstood, denied adequate housing, passed over for jobs or promotions, and ostracized socially.

I'm reminded of the saying, "walk a mile in someone else's shoes," exhorting us not to judge people until we understand life as they have to live it. I don't wish mental illness on anyone, not even for a short time, but I long for a way for us to learn the empathy needed to respond helpfully to those who have it.

In my counselling practice, it's often people who are dealing with mental illness themselves that I'm educating, destigmatizing their symptoms or need for medication, promoting patience with themselves first, and encouraging them to talk with family members and friends about what they're experiencing and to ask for the support they need.

Some of these clients become the first to eliminate demeaning words like psycho, crazy, lunatic, or wacko from their vocabularies. They recognize that messy or disorganized households, neglected yards, and apparent laziness or lack of ambition might be symptoms of mental illness.

They refused to judge because now they are walking that mile. What if all people who deal with mental illness were to speak up and tell us what it's really like and what they need from us? Would we hear it? Could we learn from them? Or do we have to walk that mile, too?

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Josi Peters is a wife, mother, grandmother, and professional counsellor, working with clients in the Steinbach, Manitoba location of Recovery of Hope Counselling Services.