Autonomy is vital in mental health treatment

Compassion and sensitvity more important than giving counsel or advice

There has been a lot of talk on mental health at Mount Allison over the past few years. The fact that we’re talking about it is fantastic. Unfortunately, some of the ways we talk about it are not. Recently, two excellent pieces in The Argosy by Katharyn Stevenson (“No one can replace medication,” March 10 edition) and Caroline Kovesi (“A word of caution about mental illness,” March 24 edition) touched on some of the harmful aspects of our mental health discourse. I’d like to continue this conversation with a few more observations. I want to emphasize that I am writing from my own experience and that I do not speak for anyone else with a mental illness.

I have had depression for about six years, since the age of 16. Because mental illness affects the mind, the fundamental way I interact with the world has been transformed as a result. Sometimes I feel very sad, or maybe apathetic, for no apparent reason. Seemingly trivial events, such as dropping a pen, can send me into a spiral of negativity that lasts for days. And often, the prospect of having what others might consider a “productive day” – going to class, writing papers, doing household chores – becomes overwhelming and I spend the whole day in my pajamas.

But – and here’s the key point – I am very used to this. The fundamental way I interact with the world has been transformed and I am used to it. Whether I’m on medication or not is none of anybody’s business. What I will share is that I have strategies for dealing with the hard times. I keep my schedule flexible to allow for my off days. In fact, I consider them essential to living the life I want to lead. But just as important to me is having a supportive community, where family, friends and strangers can share each other’s company in good times and in bad.

As Caroline pointed out, people with mental illnesses cannot be neatly grouped together into boxes. What works for one person might not work for another. As Katharyn said, it is for this reason that stigmas against medication are harmful. I agree fully on both points, but it is important to keep in mind that they also apply in the other direction. Nobody should ever be stigmatized for seeking medication or other forms of treatment for mental illness. Likewise, nobody should be stigmatized for choosing not to undergo clinical treatment. Stigmas dehumanize those they’re applied to, not only by stereotyping but also by removing choices.

The important thing is to treat those of us with mental illnesses as people with the autonomy to run our own lives. There is a place for advice and concern, but often it is not what is needed most. Instead, try attuning yourself to the other person’s needs and make sure what you’re offering is helpful to them. Genuine compassion and understanding – the kind all people should be giving to each other anyway – should always be the foundation of action.

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