I am not a diagnosis
Former forensic patient, now advocate, writer and speaker Brett Charles Batten shares his story during Mental Illness Awareness Week.
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 and began when I was fifteen 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; but even when I was most ill, I was always Brett Charles Batten, I always carried with me who I am.
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 to 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.
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. Too often a person living with mental illness is identified by their diagnosis. I am a son, an uncle, a best man, a friend.
In celebration of Mental Illness Awareness Week, I would like to share some points people should consider regarding mental health, from my own experience.
- Mental illness does not mean I'm not deserving of your respect. When we are treated with respect and concern it can brighten our day. Live as though the energy you put forward can change another person's life and you will find it changes yours in the process.
- 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.
- You or someone you love could easily be where I find myself. However we differ we can share in the fact that mental illness is indiscriminate. I may get healthy again and be where you are or you or someone you love could be right where I am.
- When symptoms are accepted and regarded as any other illness, people can concentrate on getting healthy.
- I can take medication to relieve symptoms but stigma is a part of the illness left untouched.
- 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; 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I will not forget how you treated me. You can be a part of my memories; many people have their share of bad ones - so make it a good one.
- Don't forget I may be a brother or sister, son or daughter, I may have children, I may have had friends, I may have owned a business. My mental illness may have taken some of these from me.
- If you let us into your hearts and minds maybe it will help us regain ours.
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 funny, the brain is located on top of our bodies but we hold mental illness below all else.
Brett Batten has been thriving in the community for seven years, was presented the Champion of Mental Health Award in 2012 and continues to educate, advocate and write about his experiences.
The Real Face of Forensic Mental Health Care
Brett Batten is the real face of forensic mental health care. And at St. Joseph's Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care teams have the day-to-day opportunity to care for, help and advocate for some of society's most vulnerable, marginalized, and stigmatized individuals.
Through intensive work with our care teams in both specialized mental health and forensic psychiatry, patients are able to develop the skills and supports needed to successfully reintegrate back into their communities, managing their illness and returning to a full and meaningful life.