In battling with exclusion and discrimination, I think it is important to recognize the historical nature and scale of exclusion. Much of the language and imagery which intertwines with mental illness has its roots in the idea of demonic possession or evil spirits. Some of this still lingers today in public perceptions and therefore public policy. Various cultures and groups depend on folk beliefs for knowledge of mental illness which is also reflected in core beliefs. If an individual cannot understand mental illness they cannot understand an individual with it. To me inclusion involves sharing the experience and it involves interaction and communication.
Although 1 in 5 may experience a mental illness in their lifetime a large portion of society will never feel or experience mental illness personally. It is overlooked or not imagined that illness is part of the human experience. Even the strong and healthy eventually succumb to the ravages of time. Instead of “that can never be me” it needs to be recognized that “it could be me” and “will be me”. I’m not sure how you enforce empathy but to me it is the basis of inclusion. To recognize difference is easy but to acknowledge similarities takes mindful work and it is a process.
It becomes difficult to include when exclusion is a means of psychological safety. People are prone to disengage and disavow what is a threatening possibility in themselves. Exclusion is a deep rooted and timeless function of individuals and societies. Incarceration and hospitalization can and have been forms of exclusion for those who are different, disturbing or difficult. Individuals with mental health difficulties are often unable or unwilling to conform due to symptoms. Unfortunately, it is the still suffering and or untreated by which those who are identified or self-identify are measured. The gifts and unique attributes individuals with mental illness posses are sometimes lost in the telling of only part of the story. More people are aware that Vincent van Gogh cut his ear off than have browsed his significant contribution to the world of art.
If I mention to someone with no experience outside of myth and movies that I have bi-polar disorder, often I am measured and treated as the imagery that occupies the observers mind. With mental illness a point in time or episode of illness seems to define the individual. Gifts or skills take a back seat in identity and dignity is undermined by the perception that a person is an illness. Mental illness is often viewed as a permanent flaw and shrouded in risk. On a personal level it is easier and safer to discount or devalue these individuals than it is to accept or foster diversity. The consequences then become systemic and societal.
“I simply represented a normal part of diversity in the spectrum of differentness in our community.” Norman Kunc (The Other Side of Therapy: Disability, Normalcy and the Tyranny of Rehabilitation)