The More Things Change…
Brian Farragher, LMSW, MBA is the Chief Operating Officer at ANDRUS and has been with the organization for 25 years. He will be a regular on this blog commenting on working in the field of human services and children’s issues.
Public perceptions of mental illness have changed dramatically over the years, but some things remain the same. When I was growing up I can remember the grownups talking about the guy down the street “who didn’t have all his marbles,” or my uncle who was “eccentric”. There were lots of euphemisms for folks with mental health challenges. Our willingness to talk about these subjects has certainly increased, but we have a long way to go. We have always taken comfort in a sense that these problems belong to other people. All too often and without thinking we simply retreat to avoid the issue and, in the process, dismiss the person. “There is something wrong with that guy.”
What has changed for me and others since I entered this field three decades ago is an increased understanding of neuroscience and how our brains are wired. We now know that our mental health is directly connected to how our brains work, and how our brains work is directly but not exclusively connected to our life experiences.
Today, there is a growing understanding that people with mental health challenges are neither sick nor bad — but rather, are injured. Research has shown that a number of disorders have roots in genetics or biology. Other individuals who have suffered toxic stress caused by abuse, neglect, exposure to violence and loss, actually have brains that are wired differently. In some individuals there is a potent combination of biological determinants and life experience. Often these experiences occurred when they were young children, the point in time when most of our brain’s wiring is being laid down and connected. This new understanding of what affects mental health changes the fundamental question we should ask from “what is wrong with you?” to “what has happened to you?” We now have a far better understanding that what happens or fails to happen for us during the crucial period of early childhood, forms a strong or shaky foundation for our life-long development.
This shift in our thinking about mental health forces us to acknowledge that mental health issues emerge in a social context. We now understand that mental health problems are not the fault of those who suffer with these challenges. Moreover, we can now acknowledge that if any of us were faced with similar life experiences we would likely find ourselves in a very different place.
So whenever we think about the issue of mental health, let’s keep in mind that folks who struggle with these challenges do so not through their fault or weakness, but because of forces outside of their control. We are all vulnerable to biological, environmental and social factors. Some of us have just been luckier or more privileged than others. And as we recognize our own vulnerability, let’s also acknowledge that we have the personal power to assist others in their efforts to recover from what has happened to them. We can do enormous good by treating everyone with respect, dignity and compassion.