Attending the 3rd National Disability Conference in Wellington this month gave me some useful insight into the challenges of connecting the mental health/addictions (MH/AOD) sector with the disability sector. I have been a staunch supporter of building better relationships between these sectors, and I continue to believe that there are crucial overlaps in our experiences and political priorities. For example, “access” is obviously a key theme in disability work, and this is also extremely relevant to MH and AOD because as service users we do not often get access to high quality support services. Accessing MH and AOD services is often a difficult experience, with unclear pathways and very little flexibility or room for our own input on our treatment options. “Advocacy” is another area that anyone who uses MH/AOD or disability services knows is under-resourced and desperately needed.
I can see more clearly now how this important relationship between MH/AOD and disability sectors will challenge many of us. Stigma and discrimination about things like mental illness (or experiences of unwellness) are still present in discourses of disability, and likewise, stigma and discrimination about all modes and experiences of disability are present in discourses of mental health and addictions.
We are all marginalised. We are all pushed out from the central “norm” (and you know not many people actually live there, but it’s still the powerful centre of our social and political hierarchies, and is reinforced by white western medical models of health) towards the margins of discourse. We have to fight for space to be heard, to have our experiences valued.
And instead of realising how useful our collaborations could be, we often get stuck on the same stereotypes or lack of awareness that we bear the brunt of from other people. Why don’t we work together more often? It is certainly happening, and happening in wonderfully effective ways in some places. Changing Minds has an excellent relationship with Auckland Disability Law, for example. We couldn’t do what we do without their support, and that relationship is mutually enriching.
The theme of the conference in Wellington was “Another Complaint, Another Improvement” and the key issue was how to ensure that complaints are valued and used to lead the way for disability services. My complaint, on a broader level, is about how cut off these sectors are from one another. The improvement that I would like to see is more effort on both sides to bridge those gaps. We need to understand the distinct and unique challenges of mental health, addictions, and disabilities, and work from a shared understanding of our differences and the overlaps in our political priorities. We’ll do a whole lot more to change all support services (and the broader political structures) if we’re listening to each other and directing our shared energies into challenging and re-orienting the “centre” towards our powerful places in the margins.
By Joey Macdonald