By Gillian Berry
Diplomatic disruptor at Stepped Care Solutions, Ltd

The news of the bodies of 215 children found near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia and the 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School rightly caused outrage, anger and dismay. The discovery was a reminder of the “dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history” the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, tweeted (5/28/21). Such news highlighted the atrocities committed upon the children forced into residential schools and upon their families. This news was a reminder of the ensuing community and cultural disruption which led to detrimental health and mental health effects. An equitable mental health system must effectively meet the needs of those survivors, as it should for all those seeking its services. The challenge currently facing mental health systems is whether they can effectively meet such a need.

In the previous blog, Peter Cornish discussed the use of ‘diplomatic disruption’ (by using his diplomatic disruptor skills!) to facilitate the change process in systems of care. He recognized that current mental health systems may need ‘disruption’, if they are to be replaced by something better. He argued that ‘diplomacy’ is called for because it can sensitively navigate reactions to keep the focus on solutions. But what happens when diplomatic diplomacy is put to the test and challenged to respond to the complexities of achieving social justice in mental health systems?

In the case of the abusive residential schools, diplomatic disruption means understanding why a response to the Prime Minister’s tweet stated that ‘the genocide of indigenous people continues to this day’ (despite the 2008 apology by then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, for the 150,000 indigenous children who were forcibly taken and sent to residential schools from the 1860s through 1990s). It means acknowledging that residential schools were part of an international policy of cultural genocide throughout the colonizing world, with religious groups, in particular, being generously rewarded for their efforts. In New Zealand, over 100,000 indigenous Maori children were apprehended from their communities from 1940s to the late 1980s. In Australia, the 1869 Victorian Aboriginal Protection Act authorized such removal of aboriginal children from their parents. Similarly, in the United States, Native American children were removed under federal mandate, along with the colloquial phrase ‘kill the Indian to save the man’ implying that literal and cultural murder were both acceptable practices.

In all cases, sexual abuse, torture, murder as well as other horrific acts were necessary “tools” to maintain the status quo of the dominant culture. The legacy of these genocidal acts has unquestionably led to intergenerational trauma and other countless mental health issues, in addition to social, financial, educational concerns, to name but a few. Therefore, as Lord Hansard stated in 1996 to the British House of Lords, attempting to undo the damage of such blatant oppressive practices of the past “ is not even worth trying to do”.

Diplomatic disruption also needs to acknowledge the wide-reaching philosophical tentacles of cultural superiority that have touched all aspects of a mental health system: professional authorizing bodies, qualifying and post qualifying certifications, training, publications, organizational policies and procedures. Thus, recognizing why such current mental health systems, despite being highly motivated by diversity, equity and inclusion issues, seem content to display defensiveness, avoidance, denial and/or anger when confronted with the consequences of their roles in perpetuating cultural genocide against people who were/are socially constructed as being “different”. In my 35 years in the mental health field, I have seen little demonstrable change in well-established mental health systems’ policies and procedures, in spite of trending enthusiasm for equal opportunity, cultural competence, cross-culturalism, multiculturalism and/or cultural humility.

From my perspective as a survivor of such colonizing policies, an honest appraisal may conclude that even though the tools of cultural oppression may have changed – the end result remains – the perpetuation and maintenance of the status quo. Unlike the Allies after the Second World War, who forced ordinary German citizens to face the atrocities conducted in their name, as well as take societal ownership and reparations paid to restore/repair the damage caused, mental health systems have not faced the same accountability. So from my perspective, I am shocked that people are shocked when such atrocities are front page news. I am even more baffled when mental health systems of care that grew out of the very same culture and still utilize the same philosophical foundations that validated, ignored, or justified such inhumane treatment – believe…without a bold paradigm shift…that they can provide restorative care to effectively meet the needs of those affected by such genocidal practices.

This is how Stepped Care 2.0 is different. By being bold in its approach, it uses an alternative philosophical framework on which to build a system of care. Synergy is a universally accepted term to describe interconnectedness, interdependence or cooperation. With its roots in traditional societies around the world, SC 2.0’s use of the term ‘Synergy’ is expected to be a constant reminder that we are all connected, from the fact that we all live on the planet together, share a place of work, cultural practices or even a smile. It means seeing the whole person – their uniqueness, strengths and various cultural contexts. It means seeing all aspects of a system – the parts we welcome, and those we may find difficult to acknowledge or accept. This global, traditional interpretation of synergy, recognizes the importance of seeing the whole, in an authentic and genuine context.

A synergistic perspective encourages and demands a commitment from all aspects of a mental health system to work towards solutions. Diplomatic disruption recognizes that mental health systems can and should be fully equipped to meet the needs of all those seeking services. For example, by replacing the worldview that once saw value in its policy of ‘divide and rule’, to a synergistic system that means designing programs and policies that promote connections. It means seeing groups as competent to determine what is in their best interest. It means understanding that years of internalized oppressive practices may lead a people to identify themselves by their socially constructed label and consequently, deny their own agency. Seeing all parts of the system means more useful assessment methods, more appropriate interventions/models of practice, more effective outcome measures and evaluations. Diplomatic Disruption means asking whether mental health systems have chosen to ignore the thousands of voices who had/are trying to tell them about oppressive policies/practices while they were actually happening. With an answer, from a synergistic perspective, I believe mental health care systems can authentically rebuild trust, actually hear their stakeholders’ opinions, and proactively seek out diverse qualifications, training, practices, and resources that “look, behave and feel different”.