Parliament Hill is viewed below a Canada flag in Gatineau, Quebec, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. In 2014, Parliament and the Canadian War Memorial were the sites of a terrorist attack.
(Canadian Press - Sean Kilpatrick)

Parliament Hill is viewed below a Canada flag in Gatineau, Quebec, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. In 2014, Parliament and the Canadian War Memorial were the sites of a terrorist attack. (Canadian Press - Sean Kilpatrick)

Shouting it out loud: You can’t wish away addiction and mental illness

Who is John Vassilaki to say what is ‘normal’?

In the midst of the ongoing feud between Penticton council and BC Housing, something Mayor John Vassilaki said struck me.

It wasn’t anything directly about the closure of the Victory Church shelter.

More, it was his words about how the money going to the shelter could be better spent, funding a mental institution that was closed more than eight years ago because it was out of date, and sending people in our community who need help down to the Lower Mainland.

“Maybe they could get rid of their addictions and their mental illness, and make them somewhat normal, so they could live a better life,” said Vassilaki during a council meeting March 16.

That sentiment – those words – have no place coming from anyone’s mouth in 2021, let alone from an elected government official.

Let’s get something straight. You do not ‘get rid’ of a mental illness. You do not ‘get rid’ of an addiction.

What you can do, is learn to live with your illness and to manage it – like diabetes or Parkinson’s, or any other disease.

An addict can stop drinking or taking drugs, but they will always have a dependence – their brains and bodies are rewired forever. All they can do is learn to live with their addiction.

People now learn to ‘manage’ their addictions and their mental illnesses, because our understanding has grown and evolved beyond the thought that we can simply wish it away.

There is another aspect of the mayor’s words that I find distasteful, and that is that by magically removing someone’s mental illness or addiction, that they will be made “somewhat normal.”

What is this ‘normal’?

There is no such thing for every individual, and to say that because of something out of your control, you no longer fit that nebulous concept, is simply astounding.

Making people ‘normal’ has been the justification behind centuries of harsh treatment, and even until recently, was used as a justification for horrific ‘conversion therapies’ for people who were homosexual, because that wasn’t ‘normal.’

Modern society, science and medicine have long left that way of thinking behind.

It’s no longer a binary of ‘normal’ or ‘not-normal’, everyone falls somewhere on a scale.

Get rid of their mental illness and make them somewhat normal.

That sentiment may have been acceptable 30 or 40 years ago, but it must be left where it belongs – in the past.

Not a single councillor called out the mayor on his words.

No statement or even acknowledgment of his utterances have been made.

When people talk about the stigma around mental health, illness and addiction, they are probably thinking along lines similar to the mayor’s – just get rid of these mental illnesses?

If those words had come out of the mouth of an MP, or even an MLA, there would be calls to apologize and resign. Words matter.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I know several people on the Autistic Spectrum who in the past would have been considered ‘not normal’ and because of that likely wouldn’t have been able to get a job, or live with any independence.

Yet, the world has moved on.

The mayor and council are the people elected to lead the city, and are in theory, a reflection of the people they serve.

A suggestion: Look in the mirror and ask, what do I see…and what do I want to see?

Brennan Phillips is a journalist with Black Press Media.

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