Mental health has been all over the mainstream media in the past few months. Workplace stress. Mental health among students. Mental illness and criminal activity. The suicide of Robin Williams. Lack of funding for mental health. I could link in endless articles from newspapers around the globe.
It’s a conversation that’s long overdue, really and it’s good that something is happening, but at the moment, it’s almost as if it’s the flavour of the month, having taken over where earlier public health conversations about dementia, breast cancer, obesity, euthanasia, chronic pain, abortion – you name it – left off.
And perhaps I’m cynical, but I can’t help but wonder how long will this particular conversation will last. I wonder who is actually listening. I wonder who is learning. I wonder how meaningful these conversations will be. I wonder if they’ll just scratch the surface of something that is much more complex, so complex, in fact, that it can’t ever really be examined on its own, but rather, as part of a bigger social, cultural, historical and political picture. And I wonder if these conversations will fade once a new flavour of the month emerges.
Because as this story, in last week’s New York Times demonstrates, there’s so much work still to be done. Over a century, some 55000 inmates of New York’s psychiatric hospitals died and were buried on hospital grounds. All that remains of them are numbered markers, if even that. As the article explains: This numerical system, used by other states as well, was apparently meant to spare the living and the dead from the shame of one’s surname etched in stone in a psychiatric hospital cemetery.”
But the continued stigma around mental illness – a stigma that enforced anonymity by number in the first place – continues to shape current practice. According to state law, there is no way to give names to these numbers, or to the thousands of anonymous plots scattered across New York state. And, if the comments in the article are reflective of the state’s general approach, then there appears to be no real interest in changing the situation.
And yet, this continued silence has political and social relevance. As Larry Fricks, the chairman of the National Memorial of Recovered Dignity project, has stated: “There is something embedded deep in our belief system that when people die, you show respect.”
If we can’t even name people suffering from mental illness. If we have reduced them to numbers. To markers sold for scrap metal. To institutions whose stories are kept hidden away, even in the face of advocacy for change… then what stories can we tell?