sanism – a school of thought/discrimination that divides people into “sane” and “insane” where characteristics associated with sanity are good and desirable and things that are supposedly insane are bad and not to be desired
mentalism – a form of discrimination against persons who have/are perceived as having a mental health illness/issue/diagnosis; the punishment for not being dominant society’s idea of “sane”
i’ve been working at a mental health agency in toronto for just over a year and a half now running anti-discrimination workshops. this has been a great learning/growing experience for me to work through my own mentalism/sanism as i try and help others to become interested in working through their own. there have been a plethora of challenging moments as i see things in myself that scare me because sometimes i get comfortable and think “i’m progressive, i’m cool, i’m dealing with my classism, homophobia, (internalized) racism, (internalized) sexism, etc.. there have also been a lot of difficult moments because with all my anti-oppression knowledge/understanding, i struggle to figure out one question: “how do i bring this knowledge home?”
i’ve had several of those moments on this visit to the caribbean so far. when people ask me what i do, i often leave it at “i work in mental health” rather than “i’m a person who has identified as living with bouts of depression and run workshops for other people who have dealt with mental health issues and/or the migration process on migration, racism and mental health”. it’s easier. it shorter. it makes for less awkward dinner conversations as people either try to explain that depression isn’t really a mental health illness/issue and it’s natural, unlike all those other mental health illnesses so i’m not like those crazy people OR try not to look uncomfortable and have conversations in their heads or with each other after they leave about the “fact” that they always knew there was something “off” about me. so when i say i work in mental health, the jokes start about working with crazy people or the “concerned” questions such as “do you feel safe? you never do know when those people are going to get violent!”
i am no closer to figuring out how to deal with these moments. how to talk about mentalism in the caribbean. because the fact is these conversations aren’t about translating a few words to make the language “culturally appropriate” because just as racism doesn’t necessarily exist in (all of) the same ways in canada as it does in the caribbean neither does mentalism. but here are a few thoughts that often cross my mind in these conversations:
- mental health issues/illnesses aren’t necessarily a forever thing. there are people i was told about (by family members, by friends) who were said to have had nervous breakdowns at one point or another and i/we (were taught/told to) always step/ped lightly around these persons as if they were fragile. recovery is possible and quite often it’s the discrimination/exclusion/isolation one faces rather than the illness itself that makes recovery difficult. as people in small communities, genuine support is so necessary and i’m not sure we can afford to be unwelcoming.
- people of colour and/or people who don’t fit into dominant norms have more than enough reason to be suspicious of what is considered mental illness within a western biomedical context because:
- mental health illnesses have in the past been created and/or tailored to control people of colour fighting against/facing racism and injustice. my “favourite” example is drapetomania – the mental health disease that Samuel Cartwritght named that caused enslaved Africans in the US and the Caribbean to think that they were actual human beings and run away (the cure was whipping). another favourite example is the change in the symptoms of schizophrenia during the Civil Rights Era, so it was no longer a white middle class womon’s disease that caused these housewives to be disinterested in their chores and children but a “black problem” that caused black (men) in the US to be violent, aggressive and disobedient and
- going through the diagnostic and statistics manual (dsm, used in diagnosing many mental health issues around the world), many of these standards don’t make sense for our world. i find it alot more common at home to hear people talk to themselves, to see people expressing anger in what would be considered an aggressive way, to witness people exhibit all these (according to the dsm) “abnormal” behaviours but i feel like we buy into this idea/myth that we can/should be what people consider “sane” when often “sane” doesn’t allow us as Caribbean communities, as individuals in general, to be ourselves.