Tori Ecklund Speakout

Submitted by admin on Wed, 02/21/2007 - 02:00
Some Thoughts About Oppression

As a person born with a physical disability, I have always experienced oppression. In every realm of life, I was subjected to negative assumptions and presumptions of incompetence. This was never more apparent than when I entered a graduate program in psychology at a local university. Throughout my time in the program, I was repeatedly told that my disability made people too uncomfortable and that I could never be a good counselor. In evaluations, my disability was referred to as a "deficit which could not be overcome." Since I have always been very strong-willed, I stuck it out and obtained my degree. I then got my real education when I went to work at a local community mental health center.

As a young, new staff member, I was trained to tell people to take medication and accept the fact that they had a chronic, incurable illness. I am sorry to say, that I did this out of my lack of understanding and desire to do a good job and fit in. It was only after several years, that I started to notice things. The first thing I observed was that no one ever seemed to go out on their own. The same people filled the residential programs day after day, month after month and year after year. The us and them mentality was extremely prevalent and permeated every aspect of the work done in the system. At staff meetings, clients were routinely ridiculed and people talked about issues such as not wanting to share bathrooms with them. It was disgusting, but I sat in silence afraid to speak for fear of losing my job. While there were some staff members who seemed truly well-meaning, many appeared to consider this behavior perfectly acceptable. There seemed to be very little expectation that clients could do better. When it was discovered that my husband and I gave rides to a former client with whom I shared common interests, I was treated with incredible cruelty and lack of compassion. I was told that I had taken advantage of this poor, incompetent person who couldn't make good decisions and that I had to leave. Since I wanted to leave my job to raise my children, I went quietly, but the effects have stuck with me to this day. I was told that there was something wrong with me and that I needed therapy. I questioned myself for years and wondered if they were right. For a long time, I was afraid to re-enter the workforce and my self-confidence plummeted. When I thought about finding a job, I retreated into a shell overwhelmed with anxiety and when I finally found work, it was with a grassroots organization where I could be myself and work with people in a genuine way without the constraints of the system. This has been very good for me and helped me heal and feel like a worthwhile person with things to contribute to the world.

Over the last several months, I have met so many people who have talked about their oppression and re-victimization by the mental health system. I have heard repeated stories about survivors of domestic violence not being believed because they had a mental health diagnosis and therefore could not possibly be telling the truth. I have witnessed them become more agitated when being triggered by the system's hurtful and negative treatment and I have seen them experience peace and healing when I told them I believed them and would help in whatever way I could. I truly believe that the mental health system frequently harms people by forcing them to define themselves as ill and unworthy of being taken seriously. I think that often reactions to abuse and trauma are mistaken for symptoms of mental illness. This can allow staff to feel justified in performing harmful practices such as overmedicating and labeling which can bring about feelings of blame, guilt and worthlessness.

Another phenomenon which I have observed is the negative and hurtful treatment of well-meaning residential staff by power-hungry program directors. Recently, my husband was the recipient of such treatment. He was a dedicated residential staff person for many years. When the program director decided, for whatever reason, that she no longer wanted him working in the residence, she started telling him that he had a memory problem and was seriously depressed. His memory was no different from most people's. He occasionally forgot things, but certainly not all the time. She continued to undermine his self-confidence by telling him he violated client protocols, when in fact, he did not. She told him he was too laid back to ever get another job and that if he tried to transfer to another program within the agency, she would have to inform the new director about his negative tendencies. My husband has, in fact found another job and is relieved to be away from this toxic supervisor. While he and I are very happy for ourselves, we worry about the clients who are left behind. They are so vulnerable and powerless and probably feel they have very few choices about their lives and their destinies. If this woman could torture a staff person to the point of causing a physiological stress reaction (he had a severe panic attack and went to the emergency room where he was told it was stress-related), it is frightening to think about what she can do to those who feel they can't escape. I want to do whatever I can to help those who are so oppressed and that is why I have written this and shared my thoughts and concerns here.

As a final note, I would like to say that this does not mean that I will refuse to collaborate with caring and well-meaning mental health staff who show an openness to new ways of thinking about and understanding people with psychiatric diagnoses. I do believe that whenever possible, cooperation is preferable to conflict.

Tori Ecklund is Disability Services Coordinator at Safe Passage.
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