I grew up in Argentina, more specifically in Buenos Aires. A town I like to describe as having 3 psychologists or psychiatrists per capita.
I went to the psychologist for the first time when I was in kindergarten. I was to have surgery on one of my eyes, and it needed not to be a traumatic experience. I don’t think that I know anyone in Buenos Aires that has not at one time or another gone to a psychologist or psychiatrist. It is part of what we do: either to learn a bit more about ourselves and learn about our strengths and weaknesses so we can capitalise on them, or because we need some help dealing with a situation. In essence, the attitude is not too different from going to the dentist or the GP for a regular checkup, or to seek advice. And we were called patients, not clients.
I moved to the USA in 1988 and then to NZ in 2002, where I keep hearing the term “Mental Health”. It always feels like the term “Mental” is added as a way of separating it from any other type of “Health”.
And I don’t get it.
The surgery I had as a child meant that I would have to wear a patch on my “good” eye for about a year, which left me essentially visually impaired. The kindergarten teachers would have to help me through that (emotionally and pedagogically), and asking me not to wear the patch while at school was not an option. When I became a kindergarten teacher myself, there was a psychologist on staff. I consulted her regularly, and it helped us identify issues with the children, have conversations with the parents, modify my practice to help a child overcome a difficult situation, whatever was needed. Saying “this is too much work” or “too difficult” also wasn’t an option. An Argentine artist friend of mine told me about her life saving psychiatrist. She was having hallucinations. Her psychiatrist helped her learn how to channel her “uniqueness” into her art. She learned how to understand what was appropriate behaviour to have with different groups of people, and behaviours that should be kept to the privacy of her own art studio or close friends. But what she wasn’t was outcast, left to her own device or medicated for life. After all, her “madness” was also the source of her creativity, and this in turn was a major source of her joy in life. I could list so many examples like these. So I don’t get how experiences like that of Russell Brown or Anarchist Soccer Mom can happen.
“Mental Health”. The word “Mental” seems to be there just so that the whole thing can be disposed of when it becomes inconvenient, like a badly coloured lego block that one can just chuck out of the box. But mental health is Health. When we chuck it out of the Health lego box we are also chucking out everyone that suffers from it. And their loved ones.
And I don’t get it.
I often hear it said that “I don’t need to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist because I have friends”. But this is the same as saying you won’t see a doctor because your nana has the remedy for all ailments. If you do, you might too soon regret not having gone to the doctor or dentist for that yearly checkup. Friends aren’t proxies for psychologists or psychiatrists. Just like psychologist and psychiatrist cannot replace your friends.
My heart has been broken over the events of Newtown CT, more so since I lived in CT for about 6 years doing my PhD. My heart goes out to all of those that have been affected by the tragedy.
My new year’s wish is that we start looking at Mental Health as Health. And that those like Russell Brown and Anarchist Soccer Mom are able to find the help they need. Because if they don’t, then what does that say about us?