“And you will not put the mental illness on my son…” said the woman with a heavy African accent and an angry voice. That was a message left over the weekend on my work phone. A few weeks into my new job as a multicultural liaison for an agency in greater Vancouver, this was what I encountered on a Monday morning, as I arrived at my office. The woman was a recent refugee from Africa. She came with her baby and a boy in Grade 3 – my client. This boy was having a lot of trouble in school; he would not stay in class, but wander around the patio sometimes leaving school grounds, often showing aggression towards other students during recess. Various staff had attempted to make contact with him but he would withdraw, hiding under tables and hugging himself as he rocked back and fourth.
I had a meeting on Friday with the school counsellor, teacher, school liaison, my client’s mother and grandmother, and the mother had agreed that her son would start seeing me.
The phone message surprised me to say the least. I did think that this mother was going to let me reach out to her son and that, with time, we’d start making progress. To put it simply, I was supposed to help “take the mental illness out” if there was indeed illness. She did not believe that I was going to help, in fact, she thought I was going to make matters worse. I wondered where so much mistrust had come from.
Then I started to reflect on my own experience as an immigrant to Canada and remembered how wary of Canadian counsellors I used to be. I was sure they just would not get ‘it’ or get ‘me’. The phone message started to make sense.
I reviewed what had happened in that school meeting. From our team of professionals, three of us were white (including me). I like to think that this does not always matter, but it would be naïve to assume that it did not play a role in that woman’s mistrust of our offer to help. Growing up in South America, I learned the stigma attached to being diagnosed of a mental illness is so much to bare, people prefer to remain untreated.
I wonder to what extent we represented an organized body of knowledge where her son’s place was going to become clearly defined. While I have seen how positive a diagnosis can be for mainstream clients – it organizes their sense of self – for this woman, we were just going to ‘put the mental illness’ on her son.
I hope that mother’s message strengthened her in her sense of who she is and what she stands for, despite being in a different country. That message also reminded me of who I was and that the path to approaching diverse clients – or any client – starts in the heart.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA