Working with Those Who Have Mental Illness

by on October 10th, 2013
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When we work with others we have to remember two significant things. First, we are working with the human being not merely the social persona. Secondly, that the real work that we do is on us and not them. We do this work on ourselves because we have to face the numerous labels thoughts and feelings that we project on to the world. There are going to be times when you find it difficult to just interact with someone. Perhaps it’s because of some aspect that we see in them. To be honest, sometimes it may be very superficial. Maybe the person you are working with has significant hygiene issues. This may prevent us from recognizing the person behind the hygiene. Some people that you work with can stimulate areas of social intolerance. Perhaps you don’t have the same faith. Perhaps you don’t have the same culture. Perhaps there’s something else that sends you off. It doesn’t matter whether it’s superficial or not. It’s all the same. It puts distance between you and them. When we have closed the distance between you and me, we become us.

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, “if you label me you negate me”. There is no one label or group of labels that will ever typify who we are. Even in the Bible God says about himself that, “I am that I am”. He does not even try to describe or label himself. The people that you work with are what they are too. They are the, “being”, part of the human being. So placing labels on people negates them. It forces us to assign them more labels. This serves to separate us further. When we are working on ourselves, often it’s going to start what us being simply us. To give ourselves permission to be who we are and to remove the labels that we place upon ourselves. You have to recognize your being. This can be accomplished via the lens of compassion. It is the work that we will always do first. First we do it for ourselves, and then we are enabled to do it for others.

But how do we achieve this? How do we recognize somebody’s base humanity? How can we choose to see their humanity in a way that exceeds the boundaries of our own social judgments and limitations? One obvious example of this is a comment that Mother Theresa of India made about her work with people who have leprosy. She was asked how it was possible to work with people who had such obvious and physically abhorrent diseases. Mother Theresa simply said that she saw them as God in all his most distressing disguises. It is clear that she understood that the being that dwells within is divine. It is the sacred part of us. It happens to be the one thing that we all share in common. We are not what is being experienced, or the process of experiencing, we are the one who experiences. She was a great servant of humanity because she saw the being within, and accepted the being without.

To train ourselves in this way, we are required to practice in this way. In order to see somebody else’s humanity, you must see your own. In order to have sympathy for somebody’s predicament, you must have it for your own predicament. This is what takes off the labels, the blinders, the hatreds, and the things that separate us. There’s an interesting story about a young boy having a discussion with his father. The boy says that he’s going to write a story about himself. The father thought for a moment. Then he suggested to the young man that if he is going to write a story about his life that he should do so in a way that teaches others about their own lives. When we go through this process of training in working on ourselves we do that so we can translate that to others.

If you work with people who have mental illnesses you’re going to hear a lot of labels.These are lables that are used by society and ourselves. You may hear bipolar. You may hear depressed. You may hear schizophrenic. These terms communicate some generalities that we can use to gain perspective about an individual’s predicament. Each person that we work with will have their individual path from their disease to their recovery. The Buddha suggests that we all have our own path up the mountain. Our job with others is to erase these labels. We must strive to help others find their path. When we help others to remove the labels that they placed upon themselves they will begin to find their own path. In the end we do this because this helps to remove one of the most insidious labels that we encounter. This is the label of,” mentally ill”.


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