Mental Health Recovery And Civil Rights

If people can and do recover from serious “mental illnesses”, why would “stigma” be much of an issue? “Stigma” is mostly an issue with people who believe that complete recovery is rare to non-existent. Countering “stigma” is a matter for people who believe people in mental health treatment need some kind of special consideration, specifically because they are thought to be incapable of fully recovering their mental and emotional constitutional stability.

The notion of “stigma” involves a belief that people in mental health treatment are tainted, that they are broken, that they are damaged goods, that they are, as the word translates literally, marked for disgrace. In point of fact, there doesn’t tend to be any sort of skin rash that separates a person labeled “mentally ill” from the rest of humanity. This idea that one is engaged in an effort to erase “stigma” tends to have an effect opposite to the intention. What I am saying here is that this focus on “stigma” is usually a way of separating the ‘disturbed’ from society at large rather than of seeing him or her as a human being like all other human beings, and thus a member of that society.

The real issue for people who have experienced the mental health system, and particularly for people who have endured forced treatment, is a matter of prejudice and discrimination. Institutionalization disrupts the life process in almost all of its dimensions. People who are institutionalized lose precious time, jobs, friends, and property. They are not compensated one nickle for the time, jobs, friends, and property that institutionalization takes away from them. In fact, they are expected to pay for the disruption of institutionalization, often forced and entirely unwanted, that causes this loss. This in itself is indicative of the prejudice directed against this segment of the population. We may call this prejudice “stigma”, but it is not “stigma” , it is prejudice.

Discrimination, and this lack of compensation, are in fact among the reasons many people within the mental health system are seen as unrecoverable. The mental health system fosters dependence, and this dependence is, in large measure, seen as pathological on the recipient’s part. The problem is situational. People within the system have this ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ feeling. What were we saying about disgrace? People in treatment are still segregated from the community at large within what has been termed the mental health ghetto. This mental health ghetto, much like the inner city ghetto, much like the Warsaw ghetto, is where we’ve made life harder for the inhabitants than it is for everybody else.

People, especially unfortunate people, need chances. They don’t just need second chances. They need third, fourth, and fifth chances as well. In any land of opportunity there should be an abundance of chances, that is, there should be more rather than fewer of these chances. Chance is opportunity. Good fortunes are what unfortunate people lack. The “sickness”, if there is any, bears a social element. If the “sickness” is a matter of locking people out from the realm of fortune, then cure would be a matter of repossessing that key. It is this key to situational change, that is, to community re-integration, that is the real prognosticator, and this key as of yet still tends to be kept in stingy, or prejudicial, hands.

The erasing “stigma” notion comes from the idea that all you will need to do to get a better world is to change the hearts and minds of people. Pragmatists and realists know better. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” If the situation for people impacted by the mental health system has changed at all, it has changed because laws have changed. These changes have occurred because we are engaged in our own civil rights struggle, and this civil rights struggle is still far from over.