Sunday, September 27, 2015

It's About Human Needs, Not Labels

'Labels are for cans. Human beings have needs and rights.'
Anonymous Activist
The human rights framework takes a deep and thoughtful look at human experiences that many people find difficult, confusing or troubling. This includes phenomena that are currently labeled “mental illness” – things like mental distress, intensity, extreme feelings or moods, unique ideas or beliefs, loss of memory or awareness, and private realities, images, visions, voices, and tastes, smells or touch that others don't seem to experience.

Instead of labeling people as sick or ill, we take to human rights values to heart. We see everyone as worthy of respect and dignity. We see everyone as capable of reason and conscience. We honor people’s right to think, see, believe and express themselves in ways that may seem strange or irrational to us. 

Together, we ask:
  • How might such experiences make sense in terms of the physical, mental, social or moral human rights deprivations a person has endured? 
  • How can these deprivations be repaired? 
  • How might "illness" and "symptoms" change once human rights are restored and made secure? 
This approach is very different from jumping to judgment. Instead of assuming we ‘know’ better, we ask what we can learn. We engage in honest inquiry around areas of human difference. We work to make sense of experiences rather than acting to suppress or exclude what we don’t understand.

Rinse, Repeat for Behavioral Health

We apply this same basic human rights approach to the difficult or confusing things that human beings sometimes do. This includes behaviors that are commonly labelled "addictive", "self-harming" "unhealthy" or "anti-social." Even if something is against the law – like drug use, violence, sexual trafficking or theft – we don’t simply stop at the conventional thinking that calls something as ‘abusive’ or ‘criminal.’ Rather, we seek to understand the underlying human needs, concerns and social dynamics that have shaped its expression.
The human rights paradigm thus seeks to place important social concerns in a larger context of human experience. It provides a straightforward, reasoned, ecumenical framework to understand much of what is happening in human hearts and minds. It offers a way to orient ourselves, reflect deeply, and mine the information value of human differences.

Surprised by Gems in the Rough

The more we approach people in this way, the more we learn -- not only about others, but also about ourselves as human beings. We also discover - and come to deeply appreciate - the value of what we might otherwise have rejected or thrown away. Much to our surprise, many of the rocks we used to trip on start to look like "gems in the rough." It may take a long time, and some of us will choose to keep our edges. But polished or unpolished, if you know what to look for, the treasures abound.

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