Our departure from Waddington Street Centre was celebrated just as our arrival: with a quiz. That first round of questioning just three weeks ago (although it feels like much longer) tested our knowledge of U.S. and U.K. trivia, and, as all things English, was preceded by hot tea and warm scones. Our farewell quiz was no exception, but this time, it was all about The Centre. Though it showed what we had learned about the many services Waddington Street provides for service users, we have learned things this summer that a test could not possibly indicate.
My experiences at Threshold Clubhouse (Durham, NC) and Waddington Street Centre (Durham, UK) were very different. Interning at Threshold was all about immersion, which involved working directly with members in hands-on skill development aimed at facilitating psychosocial rehabilitation. Although our meaningful, albeit short time at Waddington Street included direct interaction with service users, our experience was focused on learning about the state of mental illness in the U.K. and the resources available for those in need. What these two have placements both reinforced, however, is fundamentally the same: we all have mental health.
That last bit seems obvious, but the dominant stigma surrounding mental illness in both countries implies that this truth might not be so clear. “What has it been like working with people like them?” I often hear, “What are they like to be around?” Whether we realize it or not, there is a horrendous and damaging tendency to separate “us” from “them.” Society and popular culture portray an inextricable and unrealistic link between mental illness and crime, question the realness of psychiatric diagnoses, and overwhelmingly categorize these disorders as a weakness. We recognize the strength and perseverance of those battling diseases such as cancer or stroke, and rightfully so. But when it comes to mental health, it often becomes a problem of character, rather than a result of the complex genetic and environmental factors from which these illnesses arise.
The effects of this stigma are far-reaching and intensely damaging, denying people with mental illness the equal treatment they require and deserve. Services such as Threshold and Waddington Street dramatically reduce the rate of rehospitalization for severe mental illness, but limited access to facilities of this type contributes to the nearly $200 billion spent annually on mental health care in the U.S. (C.D.C.). Experienced professionals at both organizations firmly believe that a better understanding of mental illness and smarter investment, particularly in preventative care, would alleviate much of this financial burden and, most importantly, provide better quality of life.
This summer has proven to be a very eye-opening experience for me. I am immensely thankful for the support and guidance of both Threshold and Waddington Street, and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to see the impacts of mental illness firsthand. One in five adults in America experience a mental illness (NAMI) – a “damning statistic” as Waddington Street’s Manager, Steve Wakefield, would often say. Until we begin to treat all aspects of mental health with the legitimacy, seriousness, and compassion which is deserved, the burden of this reality will only become worse. Ten weeks of close and direct interaction with people experiencing mental health issues has indubitably changed my perspective. I encourage everyone to break down the harmful barriers between “us” and “them,” strive for meaningful interaction, and let it change their perspective as well.