The popular clinical model for psychiatric illnesses in many developed countries is institutionalization. For years its been thought that is the gold standard to treatment: isolating patients in special ‘homes’ and medicating them in order to fix whatever biological imbalances they present. Maybe we are wrong.
One day a few years back, I listened to a podcast episode that changed the way I thought of mental illnesses. The episode begins with a narration of a man’s quest to fix his bathroom plumbing and gently superimposes his journey-the journey to finding a solution-onto the standard mental illness model in the US. Lulu, the show’s host, argues that our obsession with ‘fixing’ problems, is actually part of the problem. We give labels to people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses, burdening them with apparent fragility and low societal expectations. She offers instead, an alternative thousands of miles away from the US in Geel, Belgium.
Geel is a city that is home to hundreds of psychiatric patients although in this city, they called ‘boarders’ instead. The locals of Geel have opened their homes to mentally ill people from all over the world and treat their guests as any other lodging would.
“Do you find it a burden to live with someone with a mental illness?” the shows asks numerous Geel hosts.
“No” they all answer back at various points of the research, “It’s just normal life.”
Unless you are new to the city, no one blinks an eyelid when people talk to themselves out loud or when they walk from side to side in a zig zag manner.
The podcast is fascinating.
Towards the end of the show, the podcast host interviews a woman who attempted to recreate the Geel model in New York city, starting a housing community of residents hosting mentally ill boarders. It was a success, to some degree. A resident host, Tony, had had a string of boarders in her home who went on to get successfully treated. All, that is, except the one person whom she loved the most-her son. Apparently, the more you care about a mentally ill person, the more you set them up for failure. Tony’s son had more relapse episodes living with his mother than he had anywhere else. This is precisely the paradox of fixing the mental illness issue: if you care too much and you try to hard, you are making the problem worse.
Crazy as it sounds, sometimes the best way to fix the problem is to actually focusing on it less. For families dealing with mental illness, this means being more careful about expressing our own emotions towards our loved ones with mental illnesses. They don’t need to hear our frustration about them or instructions on how to ‘be better’. What they need is for us to treat them with compassion and empathy no matter where they are on their mental health journey.
Couldn’t we all use less fixing and more acceptance?