For the past three months I have been working with in a Hostel which resides people who have certain mental health issues. This residence ensures that they take their medication and have a safe place where they can speak about their issues, but other than that, they are very free. In fact, this place is more like their home than anything else.
Going in I had no idea what to expect, I had certain expectations and thoughts in my mind, however, as I started interacting with the residents and staff at the home, I realised that my thoughts were completely untrue, and I had to accept the fact that it was my own biases speaking. Biases created from stigma which is all around me towards these people.
Stigma can come in various forms, from the obvious to the most of subtle comments and gestures. And it is the latter which are the scariest; because they influence us on a level we are not always aware of. Sometimes, we can stigmatise without even realising it, such as by saying things without really reflecting on them first. Probably one of the things I learnt most from this time is the importance of reflection, on my thoughts and words, values and judgements.
When I became aware of my own stigma and worked on removing it, I started to see these people as they really were. Humans. Humans with emotions just like everyone else, and I realised that they are being deeply affected by the stigma around them. This stigma comes from people in their own community, and sometimes even from their own families. To be frank, stigma can be reduced through education, because it is the fear of the unknown which makes us act in irrational ways. Therefore, one would expect family members to be less stigmatising, because they should be more aware and conscious of what mental health actually is.
I guess you could say I was naive to think in this way. I quickly learnt that familial support, which is such an essential thing for anyone, is one of the things they lack most.
The residence I am working in has an open-door policy, which means that family members can drop in at any time they want to visit their relatives. This sounded fantastic to me. I expected family members to be coming in and out constantly, maybe in the morning when the children are at school, or dropping by after work to see how their loved one’s morning was.
I was later informed that only one or two relatives actually come to visit, and on very rare occasions too.
I could not understand this. An open-door policy meant greater comfort for relatives because time constraints could not be an issue. And even so, a small sacrifice at least once a week is not that impossible to achieve. For a nation which prides itself over how much it loves the family unit, this seemed a bit hypocritical to me. Of course, one cannot exclude situations where family members argue and fight and so stop being close knit, however I find it hard to believe that they’ve all fallen out with their families.
So, another thing I learnt? People with mental health problems desire company just as much as the next person. The difference is that they show their appreciation more. In my first few days here I was thanked thousands of times for being interested in what they had to say, and for listening to them and speaking with them. Maybe you’re thinking that I’m stating the obvious here, of course people want companionship, that’s nothing new. But you cannot possibly imagine the level of appreciation they have for being treated like a regular human being until you actually experience it first-hand. Sometimes, even just a smile and a ‘good morning’ is enough for them.