Warning: This isn’t the usual positive, upbeat sort of article I would normally write. But I think when it comes to talking about dignity, I need to reveal some of the things I’ve personally been through that exemplify the opposite of it. This might be triggering for some people, hence reader discretion is advised. – Nicole
Did you know that the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is “Dignity In Mental Health”?
Dignity is defined as “the quality or state of being worthy, honoured, or esteemed”, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
As someone who has struggled with esteem issues for a long time, it took me a while to finally be comfortable in my own skin; to learn to do things not for other people’s approval, but because they hold meaning for me.
It was tough finding my footing because my identity was once so deeply mired in depression. And stigma, along with ridicule, condescension, blatant disrespect, became my daily reality.
The Institute of Mental Health (IMH) recently published their findings on “Mind Matters”: A Study of Mental Health Literacy. It revealed that around half of the 3,000 survey participants believed that clinical depression was a result of “personal weakness” and could get better with just “friends and family”. (article here)
I recall being grilled at nearly every social meetup on why I couldn’t sustain work, or why I didn’t get a “real job” (private tutoring then). Well-meaning friends and relatives said that I simply had to think more positively, and not be “so weak”. Still yet others suggested that I wasn’t giving thanks enough, and I should consider myself “lucky” that someone would actually marry me. Another relative took advantage of me because he thought I wouldn’t have enough strength to say or do anything, and that no one would believe me even if I did, because I was “crazy” and my testimony wouldn’t hold water. An ex-supervisor once slammed her hand on my side of the table during a meeting because she thought I was “too drowsy from medication”.
Today, I still get bypassed in handshakes and introductions. I overhear embarrassed hushed voices whispered by nosy relatives who speculate why I’m absent from family gatherings again. I get secondhand clothes and odd, ragged gifts because I’m a person with mental illness from a broken home and of lowly status. My opinions get ridiculed, and my feelings are questioned at worst, invalidated at best — because I’m not “right in the head”.
People believe that I’ve brought my illness upon myself, that somehow, I had chosen this. That I deserved this.
And for a long time, I believed it. That maybe I didn’t deserve to be happy or well.
Researchers tell us, time and again, that depression is an illness with a biological basis. A legitimate illness that no one wants to have. It is not a choice a person makes.
I get frequently asked about my depression, and not my journey to recovery. I get invited to speak about depression, but rarely about inspiring social change through the work I do.
Not too long ago, I was approached to be part of a mental health event as a speaker. Somehow word got around about us (thanks to the generosity and kindness of people), on how we regularly publish stories as a means of reclaiming dignity and hope, to allow the voices of those touched by mental illness be heard; humanised and made relevant.
I readily agreed to it since it was for a cause I believed in. I was later told that I need not speak for the event anymore because they’ve “managed to book another speaker who was a Minister (a government official), and also now have a celebrity on board”.
So okay, I can understand why they’d rather have someone more renowned for their event to boost publicity.
Then, I was told that my “story” would instead be used as a social media video parked alongside other “commoners” (to quote the organisers).
Never mind about the labelling. I was more disappointed over how I was treated like commodity. There was no genuine concern over how I was coping day to day, how it is they can support me as a person with depression. Overnight, I was reduced to nothing more than just “a cause”.
This is the very reason why I follow up with my Tapestry guest writers and why we have Tapestry closed-group get-togethers for our contributors and volunteers.
I know how triggering it can be to recall our times of struggle, to feel as if they were made used of and then discarded as soon as the event was over. It was the dark side of certain collaborations/projects that I never really talk about.
Because I believe that no one should ever have to feel like they only exist for someone else’s pity or programme.
To me, being treated as such was the opposite of dignity.
I thought having the theme of dignity for World Mental Health Day was such an apt and timely reminder that we, as persons-in-recovery are not a “cause” to champion for. We are living, breathing human beings. We have families, feelings, aspirations, intelligence and talents. We work hard to maintain our recovery. Honour our efforts and our experiences. We are not a statistic, and we are certainly not a circus sideshow for outreach events.
So the next time you wish to start or support a mental health awareness event, remember that at the end of the day, it is about caring for people, not numbers nor agendas. :)
If you are a person who identifies with what I’ve shared, please know that you are not alone. To share my favourite quote by social researcher on vulnerability, Brené Brown: You are worthy of love and belonging.
You can love yourself today by re-writing your story. It doesn’t have to end badly :)
Let’s put the ‘D’ for dignity in depression come 10.10.15.
(I will still continue supporting mental health events and projects — as long as they are genuine, and have the right attitude when it comes to advocating for persons with mental health struggles. What occurred with that event was disappointing, but nonetheless a good experience that has taught me to be more discerning and selective.)