The dangers of devaluing people

A while back I called someone I know and respect who runs a disability advocacy organisation in Canberra called Imagine More and offered my services for any upcoming events they might have which may benefit from a little bit of Jeanette. I have spoken for Imagine More a couple of times before and they are good people doing good things. They are one of a few parent-led organisations which I find align closely with my own vision. My friend said ‘would you like to speak at a Social Role Valorisation workshop?’ I replied that I didn’t know what that was but, OK. (Don’t worry – I went away and did some research and found it was actually a good thing).

So yesterday I attended and spoke at the workshop. I imagine you’re probably wondering what Social Role Valorisation (or SRV) is. Simply, it is a way of understanding and overcoming disadvantage and disempowerment. The best way to illustrate it is probably using an exercise the facilitator, John Armstrong, used yesterday at the workshop. He gave everyone six post it notes and asked us all to take five of them and write down the five things we strove for and/or valued in our life. Most people’s were quite similar – family, work, financial security, love, home. From memory I wrote down ‘financial security, confidence, cuddles with Mr Kitty, meaningful work and family.’ One the last post it note we were asked to write the one thing we could turn to if we lost everything. Being the advanced and evolved Jeanette that I like to be, I wrote down ‘me’ on my final note. Then John asked us all to take one of the cards from our neighbour. We reflected that we would need to compensate to make up for the thing that was lost. Then we took two more cards from each other. Now, of all our positive attributes and qualities we only had two left. My two remaining cards were ‘cuddles with Mr Kitty’ and ‘confidence’ – not really a lot of use without financial security or a job! Then we lost the last two cards. We had nothing. Effectively we were homeless, prisoners, inhabitants of an institution, powerless, poor, disenfranchised. I had one quality left. The card with the one thing I could rely on if I lost everything – me. My sense of self-worth, my strategies, my wisdom, my self reliance. John then asked us to cross out our final quality. I crossed out ‘me’, feeling quite upset. We then wrote ‘the mercery of strangers’ on the final card. So we had lost everything and our life was controlled by people who had no real stake in our wellbeing. I was reminded of being an inpatient in the psych ward. Soemtimes my nurse was caring and sweet and other times I got a different nurse who was tired, cranky, prejudiced, in a bad space themselves or whatever. Devaluaed people have no power, no influence and no control.

I was very moved by this exercise (and unfortunately it came directly before my talk – good thing I’m professional about my public speaking or it would have affected the quality of my talk!) My talk was about moving from the devalued twenty-something Jeanette to the Jeanette of today. Usually when I attend conferences or events and I am speaking, I listen politely to what the other presenters have to say but their words don’t affect me much (unless of course it is a friend speaking). But yesterday’s workshop really affected me. I was a little worried my talk wouldn’t fit the brief but in fact my story of moving from the devalued me of the past – homeless, criminal, prisoner, institutionalised, poor, sick etc – to the successful Jeanette I am now fitted with John’s presentation as if we had sat together and written our talks.

I missed day two of the workshop as I didn’t feel I could really justify another day of leave if I wasn’t speaking, So I didn’t see how to empower people to overcome their devalued state. Of course I kind of know how to do that already because I have done it myself but I would have liked to have seen the rest of the workshop. The whole idea of SRV is to enable devalued people to have The Good Life (not the 70’s English show with Felicity Kendall). The Good Life is having all those things we wrote on our five post it notes – work, wealth, security, family etc.

As a formerly devalued person, one thing really struck me from the presentation. When I was 22, I was on the disability pension. I was a recently-relased ex-prisoner and was in receipt of welfare benefits. I was essentially as devalued as one can be. I got very unwell with psychosis and spent three months in psychiatric hospital. The doctor there misdiagnosed me and I ended up in prison where I had no rights at all. I was overmedicated, brutalised, had a very tenuous hold on personal safety and was not worth much by anyone’s standards. My mental illness was treated with punishment and was exacerbated. Flash forward to when I was 36, I was a public servant with a Masters degree, a published book and a profile. I was a homeowner with connections to family and community. I got very unwell with psychosis again. I did have to go to hospital but I had a lot of friends (essentially advocates) and family involved in my care. I could access income protection insurance and so I kept my home. I was able to speak on my own behalf and when I experienced a violation of my rights I made a complaint which was taken seriously. I didn’t go to jail, I kept my job and my home. I was the same person with the same circumstance but the fact that I held the socially valued roles of author, public servant, homeowner etc meant that I was treated completely differently. These socially valued roles are a protective factor against being devalued. It is very important to hold on to them.

I really like this concept of social role valorisation. It is something I will explore further. And here is the link for Imagine More in case you are interested in their other workshops…www.imaginemore.org.au  

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3 thoughts on “The dangers of devaluing people

  1. It’s sad we live in a world where access to proper mental health help is not based on need but social standing (and money too). I too have had two very severe episodes of mental health, and while my treatment the first time was much like your treatment the first time (except I was jailed for being the victim of a crime that the perpetrators falsely accused me of being the perp), but my second time around, the only difference being I was not sent to jail but was still not given any help.

    Sadly having a public service job, even within mental health, being a homeowner, being a university graduate with three (and a half) degrees, being a respectable member of the community and having received awards… none of those were enough to get me the help I needed until I borrowed large sums of money to go private to get the help I desperately needed. Sadly it did cost me my job (not just any job but my dream job), the long term consequences meaning I’ve only been able to get contract work since and as of midnight tonight, I’m unemployed again. Not getting help means my husband nearly lost his job and with all our unpaid time off between us, we very nearly lost our house and have only been saved by a genuine miracle, and sadly if I don’t find work very soon, we will lose our house.

    Maybe I’m just really jaded with the whole mental health system, maybe it’s because if I had got help, I wouldn’t have lost my dream job and had to settle for contract work in positions that aren’t my passion, and of course contract work now leaving me unemployed with the contract up and that has brought back the trauma of not getting help two years ago when I desperately needed it, but the truth is, I think the only guarantee of getting help in the public system is having a public profile Without that, it’s pot luck. Some people get help, others do not.

    I’m so over the public mental health system where treatment is based on the whim of a psychiatrist and the public profile of a person. That for nobodies, a person is just as likely to be abused and thrown in jail for being mentally ill as to be put in hospital and get help if they don’t have money to go private.

    Hope this isn’t too personal to share on your page. I just wish I could do what you do and make a difference advocating for people but I just don’t know how.

    Sorry for such a down post – I just have been really down the last week after numerous knock backs because of not being a permanent member of staff when applying for new positions.

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    1. I’m sorry about your experiences. I have recently left the public mental health system. My doctor was good but the whole set up makes me feel disempowered and disrespected. I see my private doctor next week.

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      1. Good luck. Hope you didn’t have to wait too long to get into someone. Half the problem I had was waiting around 6 months for an initial appointment and unless they can encourage more psychiatrists to start practicing privately in Canberra, it’s going an ongoing problem with huge wait times to get in and most psychiatrists having their books closed. It’s not like they don’t make enough with the prices they charge here!

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