Fear and denial drive response to mental illness

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 6, 2002

"This movie made me see how little I understand mental illness."
—Tina Poucette Fox

Two weeks ago, I ran a column on mental illness and its depiction in the award-winning motion picture, A Beautiful Mind. Based on all the responses I've been receiving, mental illness is clearly a topic of concern to many of you.

Tina Poucette Fox, wellness facilitator and retired Stoney First Nation councillor, writes from Brandon University:

FINALLY GOT TO SEE A Beautiful Mind today. It is a fantastic movie that makes one aware of one's fears and prejudices. Several of our band members have this disease, and some of us fear them.

I once gave a ride to a fellow and was very fearful when he started hallucinating and talking weird. I noticed that as soon as the sun shone on his face, it triggered something, and he started moaning and talking to something or someone. He was not talking to me. I was worried that he might mistake me for a demon and attack me, but he didn't. I was relieved when he got out at the townsite.

Another time, I was driving a relative home from Calgary. For about 30 minutes he'd been talking normally. But as we drove up Scott Lake Hill, there was snow blowing across the highway. This caused him to become disoriented and he mistook it for a muddy road. The rest of the ride home I could tell he was in a different world as he started telling me a fragmented story.

I am ashamed to say I stopped giving rides to these two people. I feared for my safety.

This movie made me see how little I understand mental illness.

—Tina Poucette Fox, Morley

Derek Dunwoody, recently retired rector of Cochrane's All Saints Anglican Church, agrees with Tina that fear drives our response to mental illness:

DEAR WARREN, in your comments on A Beautiful Mind, you refer to the attitudes of your parents' generation towards the patients of the state mental hospital across the street from where you lived: "dangerous crazies" to be feared as being like "wild dogs."

The fear of mental and emotional illness is still with us. We no longer use abusive descriptions, but by the unspoken attitudes which shape how, as a society, we deal or fail to deal with the emotionally and mentally ill members of our community, it is clear that the fearful mindset is still with us.

Here in Alberta, although we no longer practice the pseudo-science of eugenics that led to the sterilization of these "undesirables," funding for helping the mentally ill is one of the first things to be reduced in the latest binge of cutbacks.

Through the (anonymous) stories told to me by contacts I have among those who work in the social services, I am appalled by the regular supply of accounts of the misery that is being caused by shortages of staff and impossible caseloads. Yet, this is a province the government of which purports to promote "family values" and the premier of which has said only recently, that "no child will suffer" because of the so-called "restructuring" of the delivery of social services.

I could tell him things that are utterly shameful and belie the pious platitudes uttered from his own lips.

Not that one should be surprised by what is said by someone who, in his arrogant ignorance, seems to think that he can receive the appropriate treatment he needs to deal with his own addiction illness from those who have enabled the very progression of that illness.

Denial, nurtured by fear, is one of the more corrosive results of addiction.

So there you are, Warren. Fear rules!

—Derek Dunwoody, Cochrane

DEREK ADDED a postscript about fear and how it is affecting another important part of our community – the teachers who are out on strike:

"With regard to these undervalued women and men," he writes, "I don't think that it is too far a stretch to say that our provincial government is in fear of the 'e' word: 'Education.'"

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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