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Respectful Engagement

Many people with mental health issues choose not to disclose this information, either because their situation is under control, or because they are afraid of discrimination and social stigma.  People with mental health issues have been widely discriminated against and feared because of misconceptions. Very few people with mental health issues are a danger to themselves or others.

  • Language and labels can be very significant for some people, and are very much a matter of personal preference.  Some people feel very strongly about different terms, including “mental health condition”, “disorder”, “psychiatric disability”, “mental illness” and “mental health issues”.  As in all advocacy, using the language the person uses, and asking what terms they prefer, helps to convey respect and real listening.
  • Stresses, like a crisis, can intensify mental health symptoms. It’s important to support people to make choices about taking care of themselves. You can always ask “what has helped in the past when you have felt like this?”
  • In the past, it was common practice in many shelters to ask about psychiatric medications as a way of uncovering mental health issues.  People with mental health issues are often very sensitive to this type of question and see it as an invasion of privacy.  Disability experts tell us not to ask about psychiatric medications. A better option is to talk about the fact that some people in shelter use medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, and to explain how to keep medications secure and accessible while in shelter. This allows everyone who might take a medication for any condition, from diabetes to a mental illness, to keep their medications both secure and accessible and does not force them to disclose a disability.
  • Do not assume someone is, or should be, on medication.  Some people choose not to be on medication because of the side effects, or because they find medication ineffective. The decision to use medication is the person’s choice.  If the person is on medication, make sure that they have access to it at all times without having to ask for help from staff.
  • Be patient during interactions, and take lots of breaks. Be flexible about meeting times, since a person may feel suddenly unwell or anxious.  If a person seems distracted, offer to take notes and meet for a follow up.
  • Many people with mental health issues describe themselves as survivors of the mental health industry or mental health institutions (“psychiatric survivors”).  People may want to talk about disempowerment, humiliation or abuse they experienced in an institution, while others may prefer not to think about it at all.