by See Change Ambassador, Lucie Kavanagh
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Human rights are slippery things. On paper they are clear, concise and everything that the world should be. In reality they can be very much based on how “human” we see another person. Do they act differently to us? Do they look different? Do they communicate differently or speak another language? Is their worth based on what we perceive worth to be?
People experiencing mental health difficulties can feel separate to the world through the thoughts and feelings going on within them. We all have an “inner critic” but for some people experiencing anxiety or depression, this voice can overshadow everything else going on around them. In my own experience, it is as familiar as an old friend except that this old friend keeps a running commentary on how I’m a failure, doing everything wrong, how no one would want to know me, how every perceived slight is a sure sign that people are finally fed up of me and how I don’t and never can fit in anywhere. You could say that many of us are fuelling the stigma in our own minds without needing any outside help.
But then there’s the wider world.
There are the people who think the mental illness is a choice and that you “should” be over it. There are the people who think you would be fine if you just tried harder and did more exercise/yoga/mindfulness/work/meditation. There are workplaces that, instead of supporting, make life even more difficult and the mental health services, sometimes difficult to access and very inconsistent. There’s a constant sense of being alone in a world that really doesn’t want to understand.
So, sometimes, the priority is getting through the day in one piece. Rights are very far from our thoughts because (thank you Maslow), basic needs are not being met.
I’ve written a lot about the experiences I had at work while being open about my mental health diagnosis and how the reaction was so much worse than anything I had anticipated. It’s only now, with time and therapy between those days and now that I look back and notice how completely I accepted the attitudes towards me. I have written about the remark made to me that nearly broke me (in relation to my diagnosis of BPD)
“We googled it and it’s not pretty”
I think it’s probably healthy that I think of that remark now and have an urge to challenge the person who said it. I feel the wrongness of it now, not only for me but for other people who are hearing similar versions of this comment and losing more of themselves because of it. Would that person have made the remark about a physical injury or a condition?
I think people with mental health difficulties have a right to not have to hear words like these or see the stigma that surrounds mental illness. We have a right not be assumed to be incompetent, or criminals or violent. We have a right to consistency in our care and a right to someone to hear when we ask for what we need. When in distress we have a right to be treated with compassion and respect and we have a right to both models of treatment-medical and social and to utilise whichever, or both, fits us best.
Trauma is a response to human rights violations of the highest order and this trauma can come in the guise of treatment or therapy. Think about physical and chemical restraint, lack of freedom, lack of access to badly–needed services. All of these have featured or still feature in mental health services.
In recent months at mental health appointments I became increasingly perplexed about how my requests for a medication and general review of my case were met with awkwardness or just ignored. I had asked at quite a few appointments until finally a doctor told me:
“We do those all the time”.
It took a little while for the penny to drop and then I got it. In my previous life as a social care worker, a review would never be carried out without the service user and/or their advocate being present. Therefore I had had the same expectations-to be present when my health and welfare were being discussed. It was a strange and vaguely humiliating experience to feel like my input wasn’t required in discussions that might have a direct effect on my body and mind. In that moment I felt, not for the first time, the invisible sense of what it can be to be a “service user”…a helplessness that I would have horrified in my past career to think that anyone in my care felt, but what I now realise was inevitable. Lack of control=lack of rights being met=loss of individuality. Yet a very simple action of being invited and included at my own case review would have gone someway towards helping with that.
But that story comes with a more positive ending when recently I had the very new experience of being heard and treated as an equal during a psychiatric appointment. This doctor didn’t do anything spectacular. He didn’t have any miracle treatments or cures. He listened. He heard. He took what I said into account and I left that appointment with a plan, hope and most importantly, a sense of myself, not just another file being tucked into a drawer.
In that moment I had control and I had rights. It really doesn’t take much to give someone a voice.
“Trauma in a person, decontextualized over time, looks like personality.
Trauma in a family, decontextualized over time, looks like family traits.
Trauma in a people, decontextualized over time, looks like culture.”
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following