I wouldn’t say I’m usually overly careful with my words. I’d never intentionally hurt someone of course but at the same time I’m also not one to walk on eggshells. It’s quite different here in Australia like that. Our culture has plenty of unusual quirks and many of them are tied to the use of language.
For one, we tend to swear like sailors. A few weeks ago the ‘c-bomb’ was dropped on primetime broadcast TV on our government’s own network and it wasn’t censored despite being prerecorded. It was said by a high ranking government official.
We also give our mates a hard time. If someone pokes fun at you in Australia it’s usually because they like you and they feel comfortable with you. They’d expect you to give it straight back rather than take offence.
And we also joke about many things that might be off limits to the more civilised societies of the world. This isn’t restricted to private conversation at home. It’s at school, work, and throughout the media.
It’s quite surprising that despite growing up in this environment and forming a bit of a thick skin that I would read something recently that would make my jaw drop. It was on a government website for a visa pre-approval and I’ve never read something that stigmatised mental illness more than this. It read:
1) Do you have a physical or mental disorder; or are you a drug abuser; or do you currently have any of the following diseases:
– Granuloma Inguinale
– Leprosy, infectious
– Lymphogranuloma venereum
– Syphillis, infectious
– Active Tuberculosis
Now to be fair none of the people with these physical conditions deserve to be stigmatised either, but to use ‘mental disorder’ in the same breath as leprosy and sexually transmitted infections sends a terrible message to would-be travellers and people with mental illnesses. It says “your mental illness is a dangerous, infectious disease and a burden on the healthy population.” I hate to say it America, but this is on the U.S Customs and Border Protection ESTA website for entry to the U.S.A. This is the very first message sent by the government to anyone entering America from 36 countries eligible for the Visa Waiver Program including the U.K, much of Europe, Japan and many more.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m certainly not one to come in like a wrecking ball and tell other countries how to do their job. I’m half American myself so when I see things like this I don’t think to myself what a terrible place America must be; I think how did something like this happen. Was it simply a poor choice of words that someone wrote that no one picked up on when approving it? Was it a mistake? Or is this genuinely the way that particular government department views people with mental illnesses? It’s upsetting to me not so much personally, I generally tend not to take too much offence on board when it’s not directed at me specifically. It’s upsetting and disappointing to me for three major reasons.
**I know America is better than this**
In positioning mental illness in the way that the U.S Customs and Border Protection has to the outside world, so much is taken away from the groundbreaking and often thankless work that millions of Americans are doing every single day in helping the mentally ill. America has some of the brightest minds and boldest entrepreneurs along with the warmest hearts and loudest voices in the fight to end stigma provide care to those who most need it. When the government officially implies that mental illness is akin to leprosy it tarnishes the positive work that so many of these Americans do.
**First impressions count**
It’s upsetting also because I know America is better than this but hundreds of millions of visitors from these 36 countries don’t. I’ve travelled to America many times in my life as I still have family and friends there. I’ve met people who are not just part of the solution but who are actually leading it on a global stage. First impressions count and I’d hate to think that so many first-time visitors would think that the average American would be hostile to them when they arrive if they have a mental illness. I mentioned this to someone recently and they said they no longer want to travel to America anymore because of it. That’s not fair on anyone.
**It hurts the most vulnerable**
This eligibility question seems to stand against everything that Stigma Fighters and many other positive voices stand up for. It tells people who often already feel isolated, worn down, and worthless that in the eyes of the government they are indeed all these things and much worse.
I have no idea what the visa entry process is like to my own country as I’ve never had to apply for one so I really wouldn’t know how my government is talking to visitors. I’d want to know if they were asking questions like these though. I figured that perhaps many Americans would also not be aware of how their government talks to visitors too so I wanted to highlight this as someone who is currently doing through the approval process. Hopefully we can make some difference together.
Perhaps the list of conditions on this eligibility question need to be separated. Perhaps the question needs to be asked more carefully. Or perhaps the question shouldn’t even be asked at all. My concern is not so much that the government is actively trying to stigmatise mental illness; my concern is that quite likely the government is not even aware that it’s doing so.
Nic Newling is an outspoken advocate for mental health, suicide prevention, and sharing personal stories. Having lived through the experience of suffering with a mood disorder throughout high school and losing his brother to suicide, he has since dedicated himself to changing the way mental illness is addressed in schools, workplaces, and communities.
Since dropping out of school, Nic has reached millions of people by sharing his personal experiences of surviving mental illness through live talks, radio, print media, online, and TV, including appearing on ‘Australian Story’. He strives to make a continuing positive impact utilising sharing and listening to encourage helpful, unscripted conversations around mental health, suicide prevention, and getting the most out of life.
Nic also works on BITE BACK; a national online wellbeing and resilience program for young people through the Black Dog Institute in Sydney, and on Spark; a first-of-its-kind app built on discovering and activating human values. He is involved in suicide prevention initiatives as a community ambassador for R U OK?, and regularly speaks throughout Australia and internationally.
Nic can be found on his blog, facebook, and twitter.
If you enjoyed this post, please take a few moments to leave a comment, or share with your friends using the share buttons below.
So proud of you Nic!
I got some good feedback from a friend after writing this and wanted to clarify a point here that I didn’t touch on too much in the article. On the matter of stigmatising other physical health issues… As I said in the article above I don’t think any health issues should be stigmatised and it’s not fair for a government to be a part of that. Really I’d prefer if they didn’t ask health questions like that at all. It’s not that I see mental illness and other health issues as a hierarchy where some are more important than others, it’s that mental illness is the exception to all the rest in this list in that it’s not transmittable. Every other one on that list aside from “Drug abuser” is potentially transmissible. As a side note I think the words “drug abuser” and “mental disorder” are also equally unhelpful. I can understand where their question comes from even if I don’t agree with asking it; they want to mitigate the spreading of infectious diseases amongst their citizens by identifying which people carry infectious diseases. So to me, while leprosy or anything else on that list has no more or less a reason to be stigmatised than mental illness, it’s in a list of other diseases which have the potential to be spread to other people. The implication here is that the mental illnesses people have can be harmful to other people if they come into contact with them which I think is just plain wrong. It’s as if they’re implying that you can “catch” mental illness from someone else or need to observe certain safeguards to prevent harm when interacting with them. Same goes for drug users too. It’s very poorly worded in my opinion and doesn’t really help anyone I think. People who have other illnesses on that list or indeed any health issues deserve to be treated with the same respect as everyone else and shouldn’t be judged for it. I just wanted to make clear that I certainly don’t think other physical illnesses should be stigmatised either. Not always easy to do while trying to be concise. 🙂 x