The Violence of Preconceptions

I had an interesting and thought-provoking conversation at work yesterday. Because of complex mental health and addictions needs as well as sometimes physical barriers, many of the individuals I work with as a Mental Health Worker have outside workers from different agencies who come to spend time with them. One such outside worker was in our office last night, doing paperwork after finishing up with one of the residents. He casually mentioned that he hadn’t seen me before and I replied that it was likely because, as relief staff, I spend time at three different facilities, not just the one where I was presently working.

Three sites, he asked?

So I explained that we have the long-stay residential site, an eating disorders program, and a shorter stay transitional program that workes with folks on addictions as well as mental health issues.

Addictions! He exclaimed. Are they violent?

The question was innocent enough, but it took me aback. Are they violent? That has never been something I have thought to ask, or really needed to ask myself in the last three years of working in the mental health and addictions field.

Are they violent?

What it does tell, I think, is something about the perceptions and misconceptions within our society as a whole towards those who struggle with addictions, towards those who have mental illness, towards those who live on our streets or in our shelters and transitional housing.

Even in grouping these things together I do a disservice. There are many people who have a mental illness who live and work alongside you and I and are afraid to say something lest they be targeted. There are many functional people in our society who are struggling with or in recovery from addictions. There are many in our shelter systems who have never had an addiction or a mental illness – though they may if we do not do more to house people at affordable rates – they’ve maybe just had a run of bad luck.

So why is it that the first questions asked when we see or hear about a violent crime in the news are, “Are they mentally ill? Do they have an addiction making them do this?” It is a stigma we need to break if we are to become an inclusive and compassionate society.

Screen shot 2014-07-06 at 11.33.34 PMEarlier this week, I retweeted this picture. To it, I added the comment that the beggar at our door also includes sex workers. Over the years I worked in shelters I had the privilege of getting to know a number of current and former sex workers. I am certain that I learned as much or more from our relationship as they learned from me. Which is why I signed my name to this letter; which is why I disagree with the legislation proposed in Bill C-36. Because a mark of our health as a society is our ability to include and care for our most vulnerable: Not how we further marginalize. Not how we legislate or otherwise control. Not how we isolate ourselves, look the other direction, or bury heads in the sand. But how we love and show compassion to all.


UPDATE: A press release, blogged from St John the Divine, Victoria. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t actually credit the original author of the previously linked letter regarding Bill C-36: Bruce Bryant-Scott.


2 thoughts on “The Violence of Preconceptions

  1. If addicts are violent, the violence is mostly against themselves. It is true that there may be fallout for the loved ones who support them, but even then it’s not a usually a conscious effort to wound. Addicts–both in the active state and in recovery–are harsher to themselves physically and mentally than anyone else surrounding the situation.

    • True that. The addiction can itself be violent. I have rarely feared for my safety when working with that population, however. On the other hand, at the site where I was working when the question was asked (less addictions, more severe mental health clients), we’ve regularly had residents strike staff or other residents.

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