To treat someone with dignity is to accept them as they are

A blog for World Mental Health Day by Amanda Headley-White, Recovery College Manager and Peer Support Manager at Second Step.

“I’ve been involved in mental health services, sometimes as a user, sometimes as a professional and often as both, for all of my adult life. I think dignity is one of those words like respect, or hope, or recovery that is very easy to say, and very easy to subscribe to, yet can be challenging to truly enact.

“One of the things that has made me feel most stripped of dignity while using services has not been others putting me down, but rather pressing their expectations on me, in such a way that I could only feel failure.

“At 20 I was forced to leave Cambridge University due to my severe mental health problems and found myself living in supported housing in Bristol. I felt I had little dignity. I was also bulimic, which is an illness which brings dignity and self respect to an absolute low.

“I had no aims and no goals other than to either get better or die. Getting better involved living in a house with a cat. That was it.

“Yet support staff found this hard to accept. What about goals and ambition and hope? Rather than meet me where I was and accept my modest hopes, there was a sense of being pushed and judged. What about work? Study?

“Inevitably it would be suggested, when I spoke of my despair at leaving Cambridge, that I return there. And yet had anyone really listened they would have heard me saying that the place had nearly killed me. I needed the space to be, to grieve what I had lost and to slowly recover the strength to move on.

“I think those with their own lived experience of mental ill health are well placed to meet service users (even the word lacks dignity!) where they are, and to hold the hope without foisting it upon them.

“Despair and loss need to be recognised just as hope and joy do. When a worker has been to the depths of despair, they are able to acknowledge the other’s feelings while implicitly demonstrating that recovery is possible.

“To treat someone with dignity is to accept them as they are, with all their failings and weaknesses, and mistakes, because that is what makes us human.

“I never went back to Cambridge and I still mourn the me that could have been, and yet to treat myself with dignity (and its taken a long, long time) I’ve had to accept the real me with the quirks and frailties alongside the strengths.”

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