Do We Treat the Mentally Ill with Dignity?


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LifeLines is a monthly column dedicated to addressing issues of mental, behavioural, and social health. The column is written by professionals in the field of social work, mental health, and community medicine“.


Dignity in Mental Health’ is the theme for World Mental Health Day, celebrated this year on October 10th.



What is dignity? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dignity refers to every individual’s inborn value and worth – a quality which makes them deserving of respect. The 2015 theme highlights the fact that persons who struggle with mental illness are important and are worthy of the same respect and recognition afforded to others. As human beings, mentally ill persons are also deserving of basic human rights, such as freedom from stigma and discrimination, violence and abuse, participation in decisions that affect their welfare, and community life.


As we look around our country, can we say that persons struggling with mental health issues are treated with dignity? Or are they looked down upon, laughed at, shunned, or exploited by others because of their illness? While our society has come a long way in its acceptance of mental illness, many still see mentally sick persons as inferior, and subject them to scorn and ridicule. Persons who are known sufferers are often taunted or rejected in academic, social and professional settings, and still many others are the victims of assault, abuse, and financial exploitation, by those who see them as unable to take care of or protect themselves.



Many who scorn the mentally ill do so because they see them as being very different from the norm – individuals who look dirty and unkempt, behave strangely, and live on the streets. It is true that untreated mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, often negatively affect sufferers’ thinking and behaviour, and cause them to display ‘strange’ symptoms, such as talking to themselves, and neglecting to bathe and dress appropriately. It is important to recognize, however, that persons who suffer with severe illness do not behave erratically because they want to – their behaviour is often outside of their control (affected by the disorder). Cases like this should not evoke laughter and scorn, but compassion and an encouragement to seek help. Like any other person suffering from a physical illness, mentally unwell persons also need treatment to address their illness, and to help them to be able to function well. With the appropriate care and support, persons who struggle with mental conditions can live normal and fulfilling lives- having families, friendships and romantic relationships, engaging in work and other productive pursuits, and participating in social and community life.



Remembering that some mental conditions, such as anxiety and depressive disorders, can affect any one of us, can also help us have a dignified approach to those who suffer. While many of us may be ‘feeling normal’ today, a stressful or traumatic event, such as being attacked or suddenly losing a loved one, can immediately fill us with anxiety, or cause us to sink into depression. We should ask ourselves, if I were feeling mentally sick, how would I want to be treated? Would I want to be laughed at, shunned, or exploited, or would I want them to be treated with dignity? Would I want to be given the support and help needed to get better? Would I want to be treated like a human being?



The St. Kitts Mental Health Association and other stakeholders continue their important work to advocate for the rights of mentally ill persons in our country. As we reflect on the theme for Mental Health Week 2015, let’s all commit to treating mentally unwell persons with the same respect that all our citizens deserve.



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