Why share my darkness? The face of mental healthcare

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I started thinking about all the labels I have had; insane, criminal, crazy, mentally ill, manic depressive, I could name a few more.

Labels are basically stereotypes; mental molds that we cast for people so we feel separate and safe from them. With stereotypes comes stigma and with stigma comes isolation. This isolation helps protect the strong and healthy but it drives those who are different underground and often in the case of mental illness – people don’t seek help.

I have spent 20 years as a mental health care consumer, my journey began when I was 15 years old. I have been in several hospitals for varying lengths of time. I have been arrested, incarcerated, judged, found guilty and found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR).

My circumstances have always been different but my mental illness has been a constant. At times I have had some extreme symptoms of mental illness; they have taken me down roads I would normally have avoided. Psychosis can be frightening. I have personally experienced hallucinations, which I was unable to recognize as outside of reality. But even when I was most ill, I was always Brett Charles Batten. I always carried the same person inside me.

I have abandoned my anonymity in the hope that I might change people’s perception of mental illness even when it intersects with the law. As humans we make mistakes, some more serious than others, but everyone has the right to learn from that mistake, grow from it and change. Seven years ago, I was in hospital, now I am in the early stages of publishing a book about my experiences. My story is one many share but few talk about. I have chosen to reveal myself because we need to talk about mental illness. There are too many misconceptions tattooed on our psyches.

The images from headlines and movies sit next to mental illness every day. Mental illness is in our neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools. We are surrounded every day. Statistics show that one in five Canadians suffer from a mental illness and the World Health Organization says by the year 2020 depression will be the single biggest medical burden on health. When we see a person with a cast on a broken bone we can understand it. The majority of mental illness is invisible to the eye. You will usually have no clue the person at the table next to you has depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The stigma associated with mental illness is simply fear. People fear the unknown and most know little about mental illness.  And one of the reasons stigma is a continuing battle is because it is so widespread. I have encountered it among family, neighbours and in the talk and gestures of strangers. If I’m honest, I am at times guilty of it as well.

I was a forensic mental health care patient, that is, I live with a mental illness and have also been accused of a crime. People in my circumstance are often the victim of a `double stigma,’ which sheds a further negative shadow on those seeking treatment. And too often media focuses on high profile cases which paints an inaccurate picture of the relationship between violence and mental illness. For me stigma is subtle in a profound way.

One word or one joke can eliminate dignity for an entire group. Stigma is such a battle because we condone it. Whether it is a news story or a movie, we are not yet outraged when we see mental illness portrayed with the darkest lenses. Stigma is a part of popular culture. Only when we stop to realize we are perpetuating misconceptions and making light of the suffering of others can we eliminate mental health stigma.

We assume health care workers and those who are in the helping professions are the exceptions to stigma. Sometimes that too can be a misconception. I have had both negative and positive experiences among health care workers, the justice system and emergency services. And I literally would not be alive today were it not for the care and respect I received from many.

I suppose best practices in mental health would be to diagnose, observe and treat the illness; but too often a patient’s identity is their diagnosis. I believe the main misconception among health care professionals and the justice system is that we are the words you see in a file. I am not a number, a dosage or diagnosis. I am a son, an uncle, a best man, a friend. If my problems make me less, help me to stand taller.

To live with mental illness is to live with a series of abandonments. Our minds and emotions leave us for periods. Our behaviour associated with our diagnosis causes people in our lives to leave. Sometimes we abandon ourselves. As our world shrinks, as our support and friends pull away, we suffer. At times our care providers are all we have. To health care providers, whether in the mental health care field or outside of it, and in celebration of Mental Illness Awareness Week, I would like to share with you what I feel everyone needs to know in caring for someone with mental illness, from my first-hand experience.

– Our illnesses could be shorter and our prognosis better if there were more good people in our lives. You can’t change that for many of us but for some of us you can be a substitute. You can be that one person for now, for today.

– Learn to separate me from my illness; the majority of your treatment of me will be therapeutic to my rehabilitation. If you see me as a person and recognize our common humanity hopefully you will treat me as you do most people in your life.

– There will often be people who misunderstand and therefore mistreat me. Often this will be as a result of the stigma that accompanies my diagnosis. If you do not separate me from those ideas and thoughts, you will be nothing more than a stranger in my treatment. If you can’t separate me from my illness I can’t separate you from the rest.

– Trust in the fact that although I may be symptomatic I can see, hear and feel. What you say, do or do not, impacts me in the same way it would if I was well.

– At times your words and actions are all the hope I have.

– You or someone you love could easily be where I find myself. Whatever the differences between us, we can share in the fact that mental illness is indiscriminate. I may get healthy again and be where you are or someone you love could be right where I am.

– I have questions and fears about my diagnosis just like society. Share with me what you know clinically but also share with society the things you know about me as a person.

– Please attach to me words that will help my family, peers and society recognize me as I was and hopefully can be.

– If you are going to help me as a team, include me as a member if I am able and willing. If I am not a member of my treatment team I feel I am not a part of my treatment.

– Help me find my passion. My passion might be as simple as eating ice cream or as complicated as classical guitar. If you have listened to me or watched close enough you may even know my passion when I don’t. Encourage me to pursue my passion it can help build meaning and bring me moments of happiness.

– To be listened to is empowerment. Even if what I say makes no sense, I will feel like a human if I know I have been heard. My voice may be the only shred of control I have.

– I will see you as an equal who is a professional with skills that are meant to help me. If you treat me with respect you will not be that nurse or that doctor you will be someone who I can trust.

– If I have the impression that you are here for more than a paycheque but that you have my interests at heart I can learn to trust you.

– If you listen to what I express and attempt to help me express what I am unable to, you will be better equipped to assist in my recovery. – Please encourage me to see and dream beyond where I am.

– Do not point out too much good when I feel bad, respect where I am at in my journey. My tears and frustrations are real to me so respect them.

– I need to see and interact with the world as much as possible. How can I learn to live with my illness if I have not practised? How can I learn to interact with people if I see no one?

– I may not be co-operative because of my illness. If you have to treat me against my will in any way remind me that you have my best interests at heart. I may not be able to see how it is best but if you have gained my trust I will be more willing to listen.

–  You may be the only one who can comfort me, so try. If I am in hospital, I have lost much of what I recognize. Explain to me why I don’t have certain freedoms. If I can understand why I must live with certain conditions I may be more accepting of them.

– If I have no family or friends you may be my only substitute. You have the ability to be my support when we interact.

– You may have the ability to see obstacles I cannot, but I have the ability to overcome them. I may need your help in this or at least some encouragement.

– I don’t need your sympathy but empathy helps. Just once in a while think about what it might be like to be where I find myself.

– When you do things with me it makes me feel more human. I could think that I am not only a diagnosis to be treated but a person worth meeting and sharing time with. My self-worth may not be what it should be and in spending time with me you help to build it back.

– If I say or do things in my illness, forgive me. I can’t always express what I need to or want to. Like you, I am doing my best to navigate my world.

– There may be lost causes or individuals that will need constant assistance. They are still deserving of your respect and assistance.

– I may not want to talk but that doesn’t mean you can’t speak to me. When I hear my name I can recognize that I am somebody. – Encourage me in my spirituality. It may not help you but it may be what carries me forward.

– If I can say I got help and the experience was less traumatic more people would be willing to seek out your skills.

– If you give me your best I will know I have your respect and I can only have respect for you.

– I will not forget how you treated me. You can be a part of my memories; many psychiatric patients have their share of bad ones so make it a good one.

– Being mentally ill carries many disadvantages. I hide from many activities and people because I don’t want them to know my history. This is the result of stigma. When you can be the one contact I know is on my side, my world expands.

– If you let us into your hearts and minds maybe it will help us regain ours.

– If you can’t share your happiness with me why should I share my darkness?

Mental illness is not a choice. Most would be terrified by the prospect of losing control of their minds or emotions. Most people pride themselves on being rational and in control. What could be worse than losing control of your mind, your sense and will, your emotions and desires; And to have it happen against your will? We become more human when we can view the individual living with a severe mental illness as unlucky, like we would for a physical illness, and share with them understanding and compassion for a diagnosis that was thrust upon them without their choice or option.

It’s ironic, the brain is located on top of our bodies but we hold mental illness below all else.

*I use the term darkness as a representation of my mental health journey. Others may not see their illness as darkness, but for me that’s an accurate metaphor.