06/06/16 Walk a mile in my shoes

Over the past weeks it’s felt that all mental health news has been bad news. 
Austerity, cuts to services, benefit sanctioning, increases in the use of food banks, homelessness…

1 in 4 of us will experience some manner of mental health problem in our time – 9 out of 10 of those will experience some manner of stigma because of that – and, along with that stigma, comes discrimination. 

Almost on a daily basis we hear about someone with a mental health problem having their human rights infringed in some way shape or form.

Mainstream and social media is filled with awareness raising stories…we have large charities claiming to shout out in our name – challenging ill informed organisations for some clumsy something or other – where we are so quickly polarised into goodies and baddies – and the perceived vulnerable who are deemed unable to speak out for themselves. 

We have zero tolerance for language that we see as discriminatory…good God, we’ve recently heard that the word ‘stigma’ is itself stigmatising.

We have us. We have them. 

We have no, or glacial, change. 

There are times when meeting stigma and discrimination head on is the only option. But, in this world of ever growing grey areas, it’s not the only option. 

9 out of 10 people with a mental health problem will experience some manner of stigma.

 That’s a huge number of folk. 

That’s over 14 million people in the UK who have experienced stigma because of their mental health problem. 
14 million people who are wrestling with an, at times, seemingly insurmountable mental health problem – only to encounter the negative judgement of others. 

Sticks and stones, you might say, but mental health stigma kills – take a look here, for example, in the British Journal of Psychiatry

‘It seems clear, therefore, that medical staff, guided by negative stereotypes, tend to systematically treat the physical illnesses of people with mental illness less thoroughly and less effectively. For example, people with comorbid mental illness and diabetes who presented to an emergency department, were less likely to be admitted to hospital for diabetic complications than those with no mental illness. It is clear that such consistent patterns of less access to effective physical healthcare can be considered as a form of structural discrimination.’

The hurdles we face aren’t only from the shopping list of horror above. On a daily basis we hit the wall of apathy, compassion fatigue and general, ‘What can I do to change things?’ impotence.

But the news isn’t all bad. 

There are good news stories everywhere – you just have to look a little harder. 

In 2011 I decided to do SOMETHING! 

I refused to admit that my fellow island dwellers are hateful, stigmatising, discriminating monsters. 

I’d been disabled out of social work – the career I loved (and, at times hated) after finally being diagnosed with a pernicious, pain in the arse condition, borderline personality disorder – BPD. 

While I was waiting for therapy, I found a social/ peer group of folk with the same pain in the arse condition as me who met up once a month in Edinburgh.

Ignoring my psychiatrists advice, ‘Don’t meet up with them – these are really sick people’ (!) I went along to one of the meetings and found it to be a wonderfully validating experience. In no time, I was volunteering for a collective advocacy organisation – talking to fellow punters and professionals about my experiences of my mental malady. 

It felt like a chink of light in the darkness. 

Add to this the friends and family who stood by me…and of course, my lovely Ella who, along with me, rode the mental wild horses through some astonishingly difficult times.

After a year on a waiting list, I was lucky enough to get 2 years of excellent, open ended, leave when YOU decide, group psychotherapy. 

Psychotherapy that allowed me to retrace my steps – to help me decide what I wanted to do with the next few years of my life. 

Briefly – I made the decision to walk around the edge of the U.K. – since that’s where many people with mental maladies feel they are – on the edge of society – to highlight the experience of people with mental health problems and to challenge the stigma around it. 

A couple of friends of mine pointed me in the direction of ‘No destination’ a book by Satish Kumar, a Jain monk who’d gone on a peace march in the ’60’s – with no money.

I felt if he could walk from India into Pakistan with no money, expecting hospitality when the two countries were at war, surely I would be met with similar kindness as I rambled around our lovely island. 

I won’t labour the point here – but it has been a marvellous, life affirming experience – and I’m not done yet. 

I’ve been regularly, er, distracted by mental ill health – I often dissociate where I experience the world differently, where I believe nothing is real – where my emotions can become anything from none existent to being so intense as to be absolutely intolerable

There have been wonderful distractions too – a variety of campaigns where we’ve contributed to making a real change. 
The one I’ll focus on though, is the #letswalkamile campaign that was born in Scotland with the lovely Eleanor at SeeMe Scotland.

The aim was to distil the the obvious success of the coastal ramble into a series of events around Scotland.

As I’d wandered about the place – using social media – it became clear that, although both groups had a fairly large presence, mental health punters and professionals seemed to exist in their own silos, with little crossover. 

Since I’d had NO bad experiences from folk as I walked around the edge of our lovely island, we thought it would be a fine idea to get these groups to share a social space – to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. 

Imagine my delight when I found that there is a theory that supports my ‘Share a social space with someone you don’t know/ may distrust and discover how fabulous they are’ philosophy. 

‘In the midst of racial segregation in the U.S.A and the ‘Jim Crow Laws’, Gordon Allport (1954) proposed one of the most important social psychological events of the 20th century, suggesting that contact between members of different groups (under certain conditions) can work to reduce prejudice and intergroup conflict.’ 

Jim A. C. Everett (2013)

Take a look at the folk who turned up to the recent #letswalkamile event in Glasgow.


You can’t tell who’s professional or punter – friend or carer – perhaps all 4. You’ll see no hierarchy – just a bunch of folk with a shared goal – to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. 

All we ask on the day is that folk don the Walkamile t-shirt – they come in all sizes with either a red or a green logo. We then get people to pair up with someone they don’t know, who has a different colour logo on their shirt, and then walk a mile in each other’s shoes. 

At the recent event in Glasgow, that meant walking around the lovely Winter Gardens and ending up at the People’s Palace for more chatting and cups of tea. 
Take a look at Jim Everett’s table above. I really think we’ve managed to tick all the boxes. 

Job done. Thanks for coming. We’ve cured mental health stigma!

Er….

You’re right – I’m not that naive – but this is a substantial start. 

As more and more folk realise we have more similarities than differences, we can work together to challenge and change the weird bastardised versions of the services we know and love. 

This is good news.

People are fabulous.

The next event is in Inverness on Saturday 11th of June – take a look here

Walk a mile

Chris

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