Yesterday we had a guest lecturer in for one of our occupational therapy units. We had been told beforehand we were to be listening to a person with a disability talk to us, but not much more than that. When she walked into the lecture theatre however, I guessed mental health. And I was right.
Every mental health consumer, or ex-consumer as she calls herself, has a story to tell. She was no exception. She told us of her breakdown after having her child. She told us of the highs and lows she experienced. She told us of the delusions of grandiose. She recounted being scheduled numerous times. However, she is no longer a consumer of mental health services. She’s off medication and hasn’t been hospitalised in twenty years. Currently she works in mental health as an Official Visitor.
A prop she brought in with her was a ceramic mug and a plastic mug. “Why do you think I brought this in?” she asked. After some prompting, people got it and she demonstrated by dropping the plastic mug on the table. The plastic mug looked identical, bar colour, to the ones on the public ward I was in last year. Admittedly then I hadn’t really noticed or questioned the plastic. The plates in the ward were ceramic though and we used proper cutlery. Oh the ironies of a psych ward… She asked us what that said about how patients are viewed. “They’re treated like children,” were amongst the answers given. “Yep, got it!” she exclaimed.
I love it when there are people as cynical as me…then I don’t feel so bad for possessing such negative and cynical views of it all. “Mental health patients are a pain in the arse!” she exclaimed when talking about the at times poor treatment received from health care providers and the gaps in the system.
We were given the opportunity to ask questions after the 15 minutes she took to tell her story. The asking and answering of questions took us right up until the hour. I stuck my hand up and posed two questions to her. My first one was, “Were you always so open about your mental health issues and have you experienced discrimination and stigma when people find out?” Her answer was yes, she is just very open about it all and yes, there have been times when people have stepped back and been wary when she’s told them she has a mental illness. But she doesn’t care and it’s their loss if they don’t want to know her. That’s the sort of attitude I like and try to adopt, though not to the extent that she does and not in all situations. And it’s harder for me to disregard what others think of me. But I really admire when people are able to be open and not ashamed to admit they have a mental illness.
The other question I asked was whether it’s difficult to work in mental health, if at times it hits close to home. She answered no, not really, and she finds it quite therapeutic. I guess that’s one of my concerns as a student OT. Every time a mental health related issue comes up, it does hit close to home. And I identify too much with the client. It can be hard to switch hats and think “No wait, you’re not the client. You’re the student healthcare provider. Get the right hat on!”