It was a place to stand. Sing to new stars; speak to new dirt. Two planted legs to help keep me upright for the next couple of decades. First we love music. Then we love food. Many years later, we evolve high enough to love another - if we're lucky. (from Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein)
The Peer Support and Wellness Center where I work is a place where people have evolved high enough to love each other. We sing, we cook, we eat and that's just what happens at a staff meeting! It's a truly special place.
After tonight's staff meeting, I was pulled over by a cop because apparently I did not fully stop at the stop sign. I thought I did, but it is certainly possible that I did not. I will say that I was definitely embarrassed since he pulled me over on the same street as the center and I was afraid that a co-worker was going to drive-by any second and wonder why there was a flashing police car stopped behind me. The police officer was very nice and even made some small talk, which was a little weird. I told him that I was coming home from work and when he found out where I was coming from he informed me that it must be a good place because he hardly ever had to go there, which is a backhanded compliment if I ever heard one. He also said that a lot of the neighbors in that residential area didn't want us there when the center was first formed. That information did not surprise me, but it did make me very sad. I still feel a bit upset.
People seem to agree that there needs to be community services and support for people with mental health challenges. Our society seems to now know that locking people up in hospitals is not usually for the best. We also seem to have substituted hospitals for prisons and that is very disturbing, but every major consensus seems to be that we need more community support. More treatment and support options near people's homes would lead to more people staying well, which will lead to a more stable economy and society and yet when the reality hits that it's time to build a community support for people with mental health challenges, people in the residential area get upset.
Yes, we need more community support options....just not in my community.
This mindset infuriates the hell out of me, because it's not as if one out of every four people in the United States does not live with a mental health challenge. It's not as if there are not people hiding behind their doors worried that others will find out about their diagnosis. It's not as if mental illness is not already a part of every community, all the time. Talking about mental health and supporting those with mental health challenges in one area will not hinder progress, but propel it. The only way to break the stigma surrounding mental illness is to talk about it. The only way to get support for mental health challenges is by reaching out and the only way to get out of stigma's depression is by surrounding one's self with people who understand.
We, at the Peer Support and Wellness Center understand and because we understand, we are more compassionate people. We are people who know how to offer support and a listening ear, a kind touch. We know how to laugh, how to create art and how to feed each other's souls. Now wouldn't you want people like that as your neighbor?
Of course, if you believe the stigma and the media's hype then you would assume that we are dangerous. Surely we must be loud, annoying, highly dramatic and ticking time bombs intent on murdering everyone in the neighborhood.
Actually, it is the opposite.
We oftentimes have to support our peers at the center who are afraid for their lives because of the stigma of mental illness. I have heard from many people that they are afraid of harassment from the cops, their employers, their church members, family and friends if word should get out that they are living with mental health challenges. Like I have said before, a person with mental illness is far more likely to be abused and bullied than to inflict that pain on others.
How do I know?
Because every time a community member says, "don't build here - stay away from me," then violence is being done to a person with mental illness. Ironically, the action claiming to be for safety is actually creating more fear and violence for others.
Those who work at the Peer Support and Wellness Center have worked really hard on their recovery and on becoming more stable people. In fact, in reality we may be the most mental healthy people in town. I have found that those who were once the most mentally broken can become the most mentally whole and as such are highly worthy community teachers and supporters.
My roommate told me tonight that all people are concerned about is how much value their housing area will have - we with mental health challenges have much to offer of value. Acknowledging, supporting and engaging with people with mental illness adds value to one's community because it will lessen fear and open up gateways for redemptive friendships.
I hope the neighborhood that our center is at now considers us a worthy neighbor. Because we are. People with mental health challenges have much to offer the world if the world will only let us. Stigma and mental health bias hurts everyone - let us love everyone instead.