Carer strengths – 280 and counting
Written & illustrated by Helen Wilding
Why don’t we celebrate the incredible strengths mental health carers show? What is it that stops us describing carers as concerned, prepared, careful , realistic, nurturing, understanding, aware and courageous instead of “over anxious”? What about supportive, translator, connected, faithful, champion, guardian, capable, advocate or comforter, instead of “over protective”? “What about insightful, experienced, intuitive, motivated, gutsy and lifesaving rather than “over reacting”? Compassionate and generous, engaged, informed, resourceful, planner, reassuring, instead of “over involved”?
Isn’t it time to turn things around and focus on the amazing things mental health carers CAN and DO offer, rather than falling back on old fashioned phrases that belittle the contribution they make? Because, after all, if they didn’t mean well, weren’t supportive and didn’t care – they simply wouldn’t be there. They wouldn’t be carers at all.
The recovery movement tells us that it is time to focus on the strengths of mental health consumers – and there would be few of us who wouldn’t applaud that. So why is it that we don’t also celebrate the strengths carers show? Why don’t we generally become more positive and acknowledge the enormous contribution we ALL make – consumers, clinicians and carers? And if we DON’T start doing that, how on earth will we move forward as a team?
There are very few people in the world who won’t, at some point, end up spending time in a caring role. The odds are high that we will ALL care for someone with dementia, a physical disability or mental illness at some point in our lives. So it is important for all of us that we change our way of thinking, and the words we use to describe carers – ALL carers – with mental health carers not being treated any differently to others.
Surely focusing on strengths can only be a good thing. Surely it is one step on the way to partnership – a partnership being a collaboration where each party is held in a positive and respectful light – a partnership where blame, stigma and negative labels have no place.
Of course there’s a reason why I have suddenly jumped on this bandwagon and decided I urgently needed to start brainstorming carer strengths.
At work recently I was browsing a brand new book published for training mental health clinicians. It was full of stories from lots of different angles – clinicians, carers and consumers. On its face I thought it looked pretty good. Until I read a sentence which felt like a stab to the heart for a parent and mental health carer.
It was along the lines of “the evidence is clear that [this illness] is caused by a failure of parenting”. It jauntily skipped along being highly supportive of consumers (which I agreed with) – but throughout the paragraphs it kept blaming parents – not specific parents who may indeed have been abusive or neglectful – but ALL parents of children with this particular illness. Or at least that was how it came across.
It hurt. I felt that hurt for myself as if I had been slapped in the face. I felt that hurt for families who I know, from first hand experience, have just tried damn hard to do the right thing in an impossible situation. And as someone who had actually looked at the research in that area which no longer even supports that thinking, I felt it was scarily misleading – because this resource seeks to TEACH clinicians how to behave. (For interest’s sake, it isn’t long since schizophrenia was believed to have been caused by failures in parenting too*.)
I thought “for goodness sake – can’t we get over this blame stuff and move on?” How OLD is this? How did this get to publication without anyone seeing that promoting this kind of attitude might be a problem? And then … what can I do to change this type of thinking? Do we just need to flood our brains with positive thoughts, rather than negative ones? Will a list of words help? Words that can be pulled out when thinking about families, when writing reports, when speaking to colleagues, when collaborating in advisory groups, when trying to work together as partners in care?
How can I, one individual, get people to acknowledge the incredible number of STRENGTHS mental health carers demonstrate every day? How can I create some change? How can I help clinicians find the words to see us in a different light? How can I show clinicians that they, too, are actually carers, and that the strengths I describe apply to them too? How can I show that this makes us more similar than different?
The next day I sat down with a friend (also a carer) and we started to try to come up with some words that described carers in a positive way. I was aiming for 50 but wasn’t confident I would find them. We started slow. It was hard to turn even our own thinking around, because we too have been stuck in negative language. But once the words started coming, we couldn’t stop the flow. We stopped at 280 when I ran out of room on my page. By that time we knew we could go on forever. But that would leave nothing for you to do – and the simple process of brainstorming positive words is a powerful way to change the way we think.
Please come up with your own lists. We would love to see them. And in the meantime, you can look at ours – I couldn’t fit them all into my picture, but I tried very hard! You are welcome to download our list of 280 words describing carer strengths (a list of words in PDF format – not my picture) and I hereby give you permission to share, print, hand out and distribute this particular PDF “as is” as much as you like – because wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could flood the world with positive ways to look at carers?
And if you happen to want a copy of the artwork, why not support my work on this project by buying one from my Etsy shop? Every little bit helps!
*The fall of the schizophrenogenic mother. Harrington A: Lancet, 2012, 379(9823):1292-1293. [free access via the Lancet]
Copyright Helen Wilding 2013. All rights reserved. http://helenwildingart.com