17 February 2008


There is a long-time and prevailing view that 'mental illness' and poverty go hand-in-hand, while physical illness and poverty are not given the same association. The two distinctions - between mental health and physical health, and between poverty associated with mental impairment and poverty associated with physical impairment – point to an entrenched stigma.

First, there’s the division of health into two seemingly distinct categories. This division began many decades ago and was done not for the sake of treating people, but for the sake of research institutes and academics whose propensity toward specialization and away from generalization has grown evermore distant from messy, contextual reality - and for the sake of their acquiring billions in taxpayer funding.

The distinction has well served the interests of politicians and bureaucrats too, for woe to our public health system should mental health and physical health be reunified.

Second, accepting for the moment the distinction between mental health and physical health, common sense would tell us that physical illness or impairment can lead to hard times. Certainly those of us who live in poverty can attest to this. But try to find such an association discussed in newspaper articles, research papers, or town halls. You’ll be hard-pressed to locate a single item in the past year in which this fact of poverty has been the focus, yet you’ll find no shortage of articles on mental illness and poverty.

Third, the most common perception is that mental illness leads to poverty. Few people, including irresponsible journalists and researchers, acknowledge that the matter is more the other way round, that poverty leads to poor health.

Common perception, fed by our uninformed mainstream media, is that the vast majority of the poor are mentally ill. If by ‘mentally ill’, it is suggested that we are depressed, stressed and anxiety-prone, then yes, most of us are mentally ill. Wouldn’t you be?

We’re also in poor physical health. Clearly, the powers-that-be fear raising this point, since poverty would be seen to be what it actually is, a critical health issue. Focusing on mental health, however, seems safe because somehow ‘mental’ health has been relegated as less relevant to health. (You see why maintaining the false distinction is so important!)

Fourth, ‘mentally ill’ is used to refer more than to the depressed, stressed, and anxiety-prone if the person to which it is applied is homeless, living on the edge of homelessness, or in like financially-challenged position. It has come to be attached to those of us whose behaviour does not conform to an ever-narrowing – and never defined – norm.

Should you ask, let me state that WE do not consider depression, stress, or anxiety to our harsh circumstances to be indicators of illness. Rather we consider them to be indicators of our sane fight to tolerate insane conditions.

As to behaviours and attitudes that stray from the norm, we do not consider these to be indicators of mental illness, not least because we do not accept the term or the ever-growing and self-serving, self-perpetuating mental health industry. Mental illness has become a convenient way of demarcating those who conform and those who do not. Increasingly, more of us are not conforming. How else to explain the rising numbers of ‘mentally ill’?

Do not assume, because we don’t fit an ever-narrowing definition of normal or because we are not like you or do not choose as you do, that we are ill.

Do some of us behave in ways that are odd to others? Yes.

We’re different. We’re non-conformists. We dislike the status quo. We’re conscientious objectors. We’re artists. We’re nomads. We’re dreamers. We’re inventors. We’re multi-talented. We're principled. Many of us are quite brilliant.

What we have in common is a disdain or intolerance for the society that has pushed us aside - though our disdain is not just for that reason.

Yes, just as you cannot abide us, so we cannot abide you.

We no more want to be part of your society than you want to include us in it. However, all of us - you, me, they - live within boundaries enclosed by coastlines and manmade borders, so we must find ways of accommodating both the mainstream and the margins.

We homeless and other low-income persons have as much right to live in this country as any of you. Therefore, where public land goes unused, we have the right to set up our own homes, however and with whatever we see fit to construct them.

Finally, do not assume that every one of us would choose to live other than we do. At some time, some of us, before poverty became a way of life, would have chosen otherwise, and there are others among us who would choose to be wealthy. But one thing long-term abject poverty teaches is the need to reassess your own values and what matters to you. It also forces a reassessment of a society that marginalizes its own, including some of its very best.

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