Some history to start: many of us don’t know what “ghetto” really means, where the word came from. As with many words, the history is not entirely clear. It’s well established, though, that many cities in Europe established “ghettos” to contain, control, and oppress local Jewish people: “…Venice, Frankfurt, Prague and Rome forcibly segregated their Jewish populations, often walling them off and submitting them to onerous restrictions.” I’m no expert, but I read more than most, and spend much time reading history. I believe the idea started in Venice: authorities wanted to allow Jewish people some participation in their economy, and they also wanted to keep them very much at arm’s length and under their control. A local island previously devoted to foundry slag, ghetto, served as the place for Jews to live as second class citizens while they served the needs of Venice.
Since their first use, ghettos have been established in many locations to oppress and abuse various peoples, allowing the powerful to force these same peoples to serve their needs while also serving as scapegoats and pariahs. The word has become a metaphor for rationalized oppression: those in power pretend ghettos are inevitable like gravity, when, of course, they’re actually created and enforced, not natural or automatic at all. Just useful to the “right” people.
Why bring up such a topic? All oppression is worth more discussion than most of us tolerate: ethics and justice for all are far more important and worthy than comfort and luxury for some. I bring it up for a more specific reason, though. I wish to discuss holidays devoted to oppressed groups. Actually, for now I’ll stick to one as an example for the many. My choice is Mental Health Day.
It has already passed, the day somebody chose, and for I imagine the best motives: stigma remains a huge contributor to the suffering of mental illness. It gets many people killed one way or another: murder, suicide, misunderstanding. I suspect stigma and other social considerations may well account for a majority of the suffering of mental illness. In any case, there’s no doubt the burden of stigma remains huge. As with so many others illnesses and oppressed groups, the tendency is to set aside a day or a week, build some sort of festival around it and focus on “awareness,” and pretend that’s enough. Sadly, awareness and respecting someone’s arbitrary calendar generally outweigh any benefit to those actually living with the conditions we ostensibly choose to help. The holiday overshadows the people. We celebrate Christmas as special, also agreeing that the other 364 days a year are NOT special in that way: ‘not Christmas’ days. That’s how holidays work, right? In that light, I see no reason to carve out a day or a week or a month for people with mental illness. Our human needs and aspirations matter EVERY day, 365 days a year. It’s an insult and a travesty to pretend that a holiday is sufficient. I, therefore, reject a holiday the same way I reject ghettos: both restrict and oppress human needs. Both lie. They both pretend to provide a special space, while actually violently stealing all other space. However you decorate it, a prison cell is no gift, no celebration, no respect, no help.
I celebrate mental health and people with mental health issues every day. I do what I can, every day. Some days I do better than others, clearly. But the day I permit mental health to matter more one day a year is also the day I permit it to matter less the rest of the year. That I will not do: I refuse.
We have segregated people with mental health issues for far too long, seen them as the “other.” They are not any sort of other: WE are not any sort of other. Illness or no, we are all people, human beings, essentially the same. The differences are mere details.
We’re all people. it’s high time we started thinking like it and acting like it.