There is something cliché about cafe mocha. I was feeling overwhelmingly exhausted physically and detached emotionally this morning, wondering how much of me do I muster to join the last morning of the Hong Kong Mental Health Conference. As usual, I fiddled with my phone in bed and then replied to a message that caught my eye. That was enough to get me awake to blow-dry and straighten my hair, change into something decent, and get going.
On the way, I decided to take a small detour to Starbucks that I had seen. Wong chuk hang is a part of Hong Kong I do not know well, and Starbucks was a familiar sight.
I ordered my café mocha. And right that moment, I felt my body relax and my breathing slowed down. I stood in anticipation as I waited for a complete stranger to make my cup. The eagerness to sip the warm foam, and to feel the trickle of chocolate down my excruciatingly sore throat – 2 days ago I had lost my voice, and had to concoct some sign language with the air hostesses for hot water and honey on the way to Hong Kong from Singapore, as if that would be some comfort for missing the piece of me that was lost and left behind.
The cliché effect that café mocha has on me made me think of the keynote speeches over the last two days. It all starts with a familiar sense, a label I had put on an innocent cup of cafe mocha: drinking it equates to a particular emotional experience for me. It is not even about the liquid itself, but the sensations it gave me.
I labelled café mocha as comfort. In this case it elicits fuzzy wuzzy warm feelings. In other cases, not so fortunate.
The moment we identify someone with an issue in their mental health, it is a label. As Professor Kenneth Fung, Psychiatrist at Toronto Western Hospital and Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, said in his speech, thanks be to DSM-V we now have even more labels to attribute to each other. Even looking at the different tags people wore at the conference – red was staff, white was for volunteers, orange were the ordinary people, and how I gloated with the blue rope around my neck that gave me the status of a speaker. And then there were a few of those who did not need one of these name tags, for everyone else knew who they were.
The same goes for emotions. I heard lots about positive and negative emotions the last few days. What are the positive and negative ones? Is there a model list we can choose from? They are simply, emotions. Why is anger or anxiety undesirable things? I find them hugely informative, as do sorrow and loneliness and frustration. They tell me I still care. They alert me to where my sense of justice lay.
Stereotypes are formed as emotional responses are triggered by these labels. She’s the angry and destructive one, they say. Mentally ill people are dangerous. We react as a result not because of our direct experience with someone who has schizophrenia or psychosis or depression, but simply to the idea we have in our head of what the experience would be.
We separate ourselves. We create the in-groups and the out-groups. Discrimination occurs, as I do with everything else that isn’t a café mocha. 99% of the time I order a café mocha,certain that a chai latte would be incapable of evoking the same sensations — I have never had a chai latte in 36 years of my life.
That even the way psychiatrists, who are professionals to ‘treat’ mental illness, inadvertently drive this separation by the way they talk about the issue, as Professor Norman Sartorius, President of the International Association for the Promotion of Mental Health Programmes, mentioned. Very sarcastically funny and said it like it is, he was my favourite session, apart from the cute dogs from Animal Assisted Intervention, of course.
Power differentials set in. We keep the groups in, and keep the groups out. Those who discriminate against hold the power, and those we are discriminated shrink in a state of helplessness. Cycle repeats. We break our society apart. Is it enough to talk? To change attitude? Can we change behaviour? Can we create targeted interventions for youth like Professor Patrick McGory, Executive Director of Orygen, had? The City Mental Health Alliance and Mind UK did. But the cynical side of me kicks in – how much of this is an in-club between banks and large conglomerates, that it is still the typical yoga classes and stress management training given a different name? A hater attitude of why do they still not see it? See what? What I see? How do what I see matters?
Even in a conference once can see power differentials – who talks to who, who knows who, the massive scale and work that has been put into this conference. And I feel so little and insignificant. My bears feel hugely embarrassed. Am I doing this to help or to be recognized? I could not break into the in-group at this conference, and I did not try too hard, awkward talking to a renowned professor about toys. An invisible sense of barriers between me and them. Us versus them. Building of stigma. I do it too.
Doing some is better than none. 300+ people at this conference, all wanting to do something to break stigma, from redesigning urban cities to hospital architecture to workspace personalization, specialized care from old age to youth to children, getting 500+ Asian men in Canada to talk about their feelings…. Work is being done… and there is more to be done. As Dr Lucy Lord, Co-Convenor of this conference and and from what it sounds like to be an influential figure in Hong Kong, the day when we hear of a suicide and can say to ourselves, we did all we could. I did all I could to prevent that. Until that day, there is more to do.
Even the Chief Executive of HKSAR the Hon Ms Carrie Lam agrees. The challenge is getting the message out.
What can you do to help this message spread?
Maybe next time I will order a chai latte. Just maybe.