Nov 12, 2012

Recalled to Life

Social inclusion is about rejoining all of society, not just your club of outcasts.

-- If everyone around you shares some defining characteristic, you are living in a ghetto and can be relocated at will.

-- Your weekly activity group does not get you there, no matter how great you get at performing the activity.

-- Your inspiring slogan does not help. People who don't need the slogan just pity you.

-- You are not a group of special people. You have been forced to hang out together by a system that thinks you need diversion. The system will withdraw resources once it sees you are successful.

-- If you are running a program for a special population, you should reconsider what you are doing.

The sense of exclusion, of life as an outcast, as someone less valued, is spread unthinkingly but felt intimately. Exclusion of the defective and fear of the alien are evolutionary adaptations. They are built in to people. So is the notion of dominance. People in charge inevitably dominate the folks who are at their mercy. When people in charge are denied resources, the people who are weakest suffer. Showing that the defining characteristic is permanent just reinforces the difference. Tagging more people with your outcast label seems beside the point.

So what works to fix this?

The only way social change has ever been proven to work is when life in our communities changes. It takes decades, sometimes longer. How long did it take for women to obtain the right to vote? For slavery to end? For civil rights? For marriage equality to emerge anywhere? Remember when mixed marriages were a scandal? Remember when selling condoms, let alone abortion, was illegal?

Tough social issues involve struggles, long tails, and aftermaths, and leftover partisans, and sometimes counterrevolutionaries. There's an issue spectrum that ranges from disapproval to recommendable. Issues resolve when people start acting like the formerly scandalous thing is just normal, or eccentric, or at least tolerable.

In the world of mental illness, we must have our struggles too. Right now there are rhetorical wars over compulsory treatment, the number of hospital beds we need, and over faith in pharma. I am okay with this level of conflict. Every side has its points.

But we do need to adjust what we are doing in the fight for social inclusion.

-- We must start by including ourselves. This means showing up at work and at other places that are not defined by disability. Divert people from system-driven isolation. If you are renting space for your clubhouse, give it up. Borrow a conference room at a library, church or community hospital once a week. Spend the rent money on coffee at the local diner, music lessons and on YMCA memberships. If you are looking for a social enterprise, start a conference center, a web design firm, or your own restaurant, and aim for top-of-the-line. If you want empowerment, have people join their political ward club. You can deliver support, but let your people go.

-- Disclosure is irrelevant. Nobody cares about your diagnosis. Let people get to know you. Get over your embarrassment. Everybody is hiding something. By the way, the stories we tell about ourselves are always approximations. Everybody just makes them up.

-- Confidentiality is a barrier. We say it is protecting us, but it also keeps us apart. It's okay to have barriers like these, but we need to put gates where they're needed.

-- Realize where you can't win. You have to be willing to swing with science, with capitalism, and with the two-party system. So what if scientists say the thing folks have is usually genetic. They don't know what happened to you.

-- Start talking in terms of universals. We all have our problems. Everyone has skills and talents to contribute. Everyone needs to take a break or regroup. Everyone needs a chance to socialize.

-- Embrace the sensibilities of the nonprofessional. True reform in mental health has always been instigated by non-professionals. Dorothea Dix was a housewife who expected the asylums she advocated for to be free of crushing restraints. Clifford W. Beers was a businessman who exposed cruelties in psychiatric care. In the 1940's, conscientious objectors forced to work as psychiatric orderlies took photos that revealed the scandals of the modern Bedlam. Judy Chamberlin experienced coercive 20th Century institutionalization. NAMI's founders were parents who wanted a better life for their children. Professionals speak in terms of dosages and treatment plans. Non-professionals talk about cruelty and justice.

Above all, we need narratives that work and build power. Recovery works like the parable of the prodigal son. We all have our struggles. We rebuild with our strengths and the help of our allies. We love our sisters even when they need some support. We want people to be different. We want people to get better. We are all alike. Everyone deserves to be safe. We want to find each other and make our way in the world.

We must own our powerful stories of redemption, of rescue, of being recalled to life -- and show up everywhere..

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