Friday, July 13, 2012
I came here to Alaska not really knowing what to expect. I had never worked with this population of people before, mainly because I was scared of the “crazy folk”. That’s all they were to me, a label, a stigma, and I can thankfully say that these eight weeks have truly changed my perspective. I not only worked with mentally ill clients, but lived with them, and interacted with them in a variety of situations. And guess what, they’re people-just like you and me.
In court on Wednesday, one of the case managers said the word “crazy”, I don’t even remember the context but it didn’t have to do directly with a client, but the judge and court administrator both gently reminded her that we don’t use that word. It wasn’t until I came to Alaska and worked with the various agencies that I realized the bad label that goes along with mental health. I have never had personal exposure to any therapy or work like this before so I have never realized the way society’s stigma can affect the clients. I have met clients that refuse to admit they have any illness, and therefore refuse treatment, because they don’t want to be labeled. I have met clients that have stopped taking their medication thinking they’re fine only to realize that this is not something that just goes away. This is something that I think a lot of us forget, these are illnesses. The clients aren’t actively waking up in the morning choosing to be sick, they don’t get a choice in the matter, but they do have a choice to seek treatment. A lot of them are scared to, though, because they don’t want to be labeled and shoved to the margins of society. I have chatted with many people who have been to the dark stages and corners of their illness only to find their way to the light and I have met those who are still searching for the end of the tunnel. The ones who have fought the dark places have told me that they don’t want others to let them use their mental illness as an excuse. They all say, “We’re sick, but we still have a conscience”, and while this doesn’t work for every client who hasn’t quite come to understand themselves as thoroughly, I think it stands as a good reminder. They’re still people and should be treated as such.
The best example I can give, is to give them a smile. So many of us are caught up in our individual worlds and forget to interact with others. If you’re walking down the sidewalk and see someone walking towards you, look up, make eye contact, and smile or nod, some form of recognition. And this goes for anyone you meet. I’ve learned a lot about talking with people, both those who are stable and unstable. The case managers have the patience of saints, that’s for sure. It’s about communicating in a way that is personable but not condescending. The human connection that I am advocating reminds us that the labels are what are holding us back from truly embracing and understanding each other.
I’ve been so worried about what I’m bringing back from Alaska, what I have to show, but what I have learned isn’t really tangible. It’s a reminder that labels and judgments build the walls back up around us so we’re able to hide away from others. And so I share with you this song, reminding us that change begins with one person and as we set the example for others, it turns into a movement. We have to model the behavior first.
The best part of it is that I have been reminded of the beauty of being different. Being a cookie cutter rendition of others has never changed the world and the best place to start is with yourself.