About darylhb

A one-man flashmob. I am a gay, wheelchair-using amputee and suicide survivor discussing depression, disability, psychology, sexuality, faith, society and culture. Mysterious as the dark side of the moon.

Let’s stop treating everyone the same

“It’s hard when people claim to treat you as a person, but their concept of “person” is so centered on the Caucasian experience … But I’m NOT white. My race is a significant part of my personhood. It affects how I experience things, including jokes about Asians.”

I’d never thought about this aspect of “colour blindness” before I read the above quote in an Empathize This cartoon (see below) created by an anonymous Asian American woman and published on Upworthy. By not acknowledging a person of colour’s race and seeing them as “just another person”, I’m actually ignoring an essential part of who they are, an identity that does impact their life every day, whether I like it or not. As a white guy, my default perception of a “person’s” life experience is white, and so treating a person of colour like my default person is essentially whitewashing them and erasing a part of them that I cannot fully empathise with, no matter how hard I try.

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This cartoon has been especially topical this month, as February is Black History Month in the USA. Today, the general history we learn has still been recorded and is still retold from a white man’s perspective, even when discussing key elements in the black liberation struggle during apartheid and slavery in the USA. It would be easy for a white man like me to ignore the reality that the oppression of the past still impacts the lives of black people today, in terms of income, opportunities and tacit prejudice that I take for granted as simply the way the world works.

I don’t want to detract from that conversation about black heritage, but I do believe that this “blindness” to someone’s individual personhood is not just a racial problem. It also applies to unconscious discrimination of women, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people with disabilities.

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As an amputee, I’m aware of how others often behave thoughtlessly and insensitively to people with disabilities. Sometimes I’ll arrive at an event I’ve been invited to, only to realise there are activities I can’t take part in, toilets I can’t access, or a large staircase in my way. I try to be as independent as possible, and I don’t mind climbing steps on my hands and stumps, but I still need someone to carry my wheelchair. I often find such situations humiliating, even though most people are more than willing to help. More importantly,  different people with other disabilities may not be able to manage this well.

How can someone make circumstances like these easier for me and other people with disabilities? Obviously, it is not always possible to remove every obstacle in the way, and I would hate to live such a limited life that I only go to places that are easy for me to navigate. It means a great deal to me, however, when someone has already considered beforehand all the challenges I might face and given some thought to how they can help, without me needing to ask for it. I am incredibly grateful when someone has given my disability some thought and come up with a plan.

In my experience, people are more conscious of being sensitive to those with disabilities than to people who identify as LGBTQ. As a gay man, I often feel uncomfortable about the way others joke about LGBTQ matters and offer opinions that are clearly not based on any knowledge or understanding of someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bi or trans. I tense up every time someone in my office or in the mall mocks a colleague or friend with that throwaway line, “That’s so gay.” It makes me feel worthless, scorned and shamed, even though it isn’t being directed at me personally.

Of course we all want people to see beyond our differences – our disability, race, and sexual identity – to the essence of who we are. I’m only just beginning to understand, however, that our differences are not merely optional adjectives attached to the periphery of our being – they are inherent to that very same essence we want others to know of ourselves. It’s time we realised that respect and equality is not about overlooking our differences, but about acknowledging and honouring those differences in one another.

Below is the full comic that inspired this post, but check out others created by members of minority groups on Empathize This.

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LGBT History Month 2017

This month is LGBT History Month in the UK. The idea of the month is to reflect on the history of the LGBT community and also think about how the community may evolve from here. The guys over at Carvaka thought it would be a good idea (and I agree by the way!) to produce an infographic to celebrate all that is great about the LGBT community to mark the month. The graphic lists some of the community’s most successful people, which include Giorgio Armani, Peter Thiel, David Geffen, Megan Ellison and Elton John.

To show just how far the community has come in securing equal marital rights for its members, the infographic shows all of the countries in the world where same-sex marriage is now fully recognised. However, there is still much work to do, particularly in Russia, the Middle East and much of Africa where prejudice is still common. Some interesting stats are also included, such as that 1.7% of the UK population identify as being part of the LGBT community, but this number rises to 3.3% when people aged 17-24 are analysed. This disparity points to a lost generation of older LGBT people who could never bring themselves to come out; it is through initiatives such as LGBT History Month that these people are encouraged to be who they really are without fear of prejudice or ridicule.

I hope you enjoy this infographic and during the month of February reflect on from whence the community has come, all that is great about it and how it might develop into the future. Happy LGBT History Month!

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Where there is a will, there is a way to beat stigma

This post is the fifth and final entry in a series of posts reporting on the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) International Congress 2016, which I attended in Cape Town in November.

There is no country in the world, rich or poor, in which anti-stigma programmes related to mental illnesses won’t succeed if there is the will to do so and if a few basic lessons are adhered to, according to former WPA President Professor Norman Sartorius, speaking at the WPA Congress in 2016.

During his session, titled The Stigma of Mental Illness – End of the Story?, Professor Sartorius shared the lessons he has learned over thirty years as a founding member of the anti-stigma movement.

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Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Professor Sartorius said many programmes against stigma had been developed worldwide, including the Open the Doors programme developed by the WPA and the INDIGO programme. Major national, regional and provincial programmes had also been set up.

The most important lesson of all, he said, was that “anti-stigma programmes must start with a self-examination of those who will lead the programme.
“If their prejudices are not dealt with, the programme could lose credibility,” he said.

When selecting priorities for a programme, Professor Sartorius recommended that three criteria should be applied, namely:

  1. Do people with mental illness and their families see this area as a problem for them?
  2. Is it likely that the project will be a success?
  3. Does the work require planning over the time horizon?

“For instance, in Canada, we asked patients first, ‘What is it that disturbs you the most?’
They said, ‘What really disturbs us is when a doctor or hospital treats us like dirt…’. So we went to hospitals in Calgary to observe and interview the staff. Many of the doctors weren’t aware that they were seen that way. We talked to them and tried to change their attitudes.
“Six months later, the people with mental illness said this was the first time anyone had asked them what was needed to make their lives better.”

Professor Sartorius said another key lesson when setting up anti-stigma programmes was to “Choose the one that will be successful, or else people get fed up”.
He also advised, “Do not make plans further than you can foresee, for example if there is going to be a change of government.”

While overall rules for the programme are useful, the professor emphasised that flexibility is needed to make the most of opportunities that may arise.

Further important takeaways learnt from his research were that:

  • The key to success is the existence of a small group of dedicated workers who will stay with the programme for at least five years, with a likeable, charismatic leader and team.
  • Campaigns are useful only if they are intensifications of steady, continuous work on stigma. “Isolated campaigns are likely to be experienced as useless or harmful by those most concerned. For example, a one-year campaign in Sweden failed … Programmes must carry on into the future.”
  • The scientific evaluation of whether the attitudes to people with mental illness have changed should rely on changes in the behaviour of all concerned.
  • Programmes against stigma should address, and be tailored for, well-defined groups of people. “A programme addressed to a policeman will be different from one for teachers or judges. Sharp focus is important.”
  • Simply providing knowledge does not reduce stigma. Additional knowledge can increase stigma because of selective perception processes. “Training in specific skills in relationships with mentally ill people should be offered.”

Professor Sartorius said it is important to bear in mind that help and support to programs often comes from unexpected sources. “There is much good will that is never used because nobody asked for it.”

The previous post in this series covered creative ways of caring for mental health patients. My other reports from the WPA include ideas for psychiatrists to break down the walls of racism and discrimination present in mental healthcare in South Africa. Other posts discussed psychiatrists’ implicit contract with society, as well as African Union Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s address at the opening ceremony of the WPA Congress, in which she called for international organisations to place more emphasis on mental health funding and activism.