Breaking the Labels

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We must be careful when discussing mental health. There is real potential for emotional self-harm to ourselves through negative self-talk. There is also enormous potential to cause pain to others through the thoughtless use of language.

When we speak about physical health, it is generally acknowledged that health and illness are not absolute conditions. A person is never 100% healthy or it’s opposite. I had the flu last week, but am now getting over it. Am I healthy or unhealthy?

Why then do some people become labelled as ‘mentally ill’? Every single human person has challenges to their mental health. We all experience stress, setbacks and frustration. Many of us have or continue to experience major traumas such as the death of a loved one, car accident, or violent assault. Being mentally healthy means cultivating the ability to cope with the stresses of life. For some folks, these stresses include things like finding parking, dealing with a difficult colleague or boss, conflict with family or neighbours.

Folks accessing services at the St Felix Centre have experienced stresses far beyond what many people in mainstream society have the ability to understand. Homelessness can be a savage condition where most, if not all, a person’s energy and intellect is dedicated to survival. To staying warm (or cool), staying fed and staying safe. Homelessness can drain a person’s future, as they spend everything within them simply to stay where they are.

When so much of your energy, skill, intelligence and experience is being used to simply maintain your current situation is there any surprise that people experiencing homelessness have a limited capacity to cope with additional stressors in their circumstances? Research has shown that chronic poverty can generate physiological changes in how our brains function. We start to think only in the short term. Long term planning goes out the window as all our mental and financial resources are pressed into service for more immediate problems such as day to day survival.

This is one reason why people experiencing homelessness are so often stigmatized as “mentally ill”. Our mainstream culture has a tendency to get things wrong in our understanding of mental health / illness. People often confuse the outcome / effect (intensifying mental health challenges) with the person rather than the cause (homelessness). In this way, our culture makes efforts to place the blame for the problem of homelessness on the homeless themselves. It is an attempt to abdicate responsibility. To look the other way.

Just a few days after celebrating World Mental Health Day on October 10th, we would like to encourage the reader to create some space for empathy. Every person you see, from the Bay Street CEO to the person asking for change on the corner, is experiencing stressors and coping with them in the best ways they know how. Should we change how we view a person, how we interact with them based on real or perceived experience of mental illness? At the St Felix Centre we believe every person has value, is entitled to dignity, and deserves happiness. We try to meet people ‘where they are’, and support them in getting to where they want to go.

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