In the Hartford Courant, Sharon Brewer and Nancy Aker describe the experience of how the life paths of children labeled with a mental illness often take a widely divergent path than that of more typical children. They call them parallel paths, and point out so compellingly that the ordinary markers of typical childhood – like birthday parties, sleepovers, SATs, and sports teams often get replaced by such markers as extensive medical appointments, repeated hospitalizations, separate schools, separate classes, prescription drugs that impact mind and body in tough ways, and things like “social skills clubs”. This phenomenon – where a person is seen to have or aquire an “undesirable characteristic” – like old age, an intellectual disability, mental confusion, a mental disorder, even poverty – and then get sucked into a trajectory which sets their life on a path so incredibly different from valued people is one we can witness time and time again. Let’s face it, it is almost always very bad when this happens.
The conclusion Ms. Brewer and Ms. Aker come to and advocate for as family members is to request that friends, neighbors, and citizens come together to be more hospitable and supportive to families who are experiencing mental illness within their family. No disagreement there, but as always, I have my ten cents to add.
One of the most beautiful and helpful concepts for me over the years has been the idea of the “culturally valued analogue”, a term invented by Wolf Wolfensberger and taught in Social Role Valorization. The “CVA” as we call it, is taking a look at “what happens for typical citizens who have a valued status” in a particular area of life. Quite simply, our colleague Tom Doody has described it as “studying the ordinary”. This has great and elegant utility when someone has a vulnerability and may need some safeguarding from a wholesale leap into the “alternate path” of clienthood with all its peril. So when a young man who is dear to me began to have a laundry list of diagnoses attached to him, those who love him took great care to keep tabs on the “typical desired teen life” – even making a list of those things, and preserving as many of those as possible. Attending special classes, support groups, all sorts of therapies, special schools, lots of drugs, expensive new brain scans, special expensive “coaches”- these were freely and cheerfully offered by well-meaning people in his life. Those who stood by him never took their eyes off the ordinary, and saw each as something to be carefully and skeptically evaluated, as they are all pieces of the trajectory towards that parallel path. When any were accepted in any measure, efforts to “strengthen the ordinary” were redoubled – guitar lessons, a course in music theory, study abroad, service club, interesting school projects, time with robust friends.
As the authors note – once people get off the conventional path, the likelihood of “rejoining the mainstream” is very slim. This is the clear truth to those of us who have struggled to assist deeply devalued people to be welcomed in the world. When possible, it seems powerfully important to pay close attention before people’s lives get derailed.