How do you tell the individual stories?

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Mostly because I’ve been too tired to function, once the days at work are over, those last two months. I’ve been working as a junior doctor in a walk-in clinic of pschychiatry, dedicated partly to the migrants and asylum seeker population, and otherwise to the “general ” population (whatever that means).
And there would be so much to tell, but it’s also what has kept me silent, in a way: how do you choose which story to tell? how do you pick one more than the other, how do you prevent a single story to become a generality, especially in a subject so prone to generalizations – or rather, two subjects prone to generalizations and stigma: mental health patients and migrants. So migrants with mental health issues, careful where you’re going…

And it’s visible, in the discussions I have with anyone asking me what I’ve been up to lately.
There’s the “oh, that must be interesting, for you ” (intending, normally psychiatry would not be stimulating enough – that’s usually the view from people working in other fields of medicine, but not only –  but since it’s about migrants and you like to travel, sudenly it’s your dream job in a way).  There’s the “it must be so difficult to work with psychiatric patients”- assuming of course that there is only one psychiatric patient – probably something that encompasses everything people associate with psychiatry: crazy, chronic, untreatable, dangerous, and a few other things, even worse than those. There’s the “but do they really need help, these people, they’ve arrived here, haven’t they?” which is really just a handy way to tell in a sentence that the person in front of you is a total ignorant, and, when you say you have crazy schedules because the clinic is working at a 150% capacity, lacking health staff, there is the classic “just goes to show there are too many of “them” already here. Ah, if only things were that mathematically simple…
So, if the job in itself wasn’t exhausting enough, talking about it with others is quite a handfull. Because you immediatly have to take a stand, one way or another, when it really isn’t your job: I’m not here to judge, I shouldn’t need to be an advocate, yet I find I have to be.

Anyway, there is a lot to tell. And it is indeed interesting, and difficult, and yes sometimes you ask yourself whether you are indeed of any use -though not for the reasons people might think, and for me at least, I realize it was a necessity. Not when I applied for it – didn’t really apply for it specifically, in fact – but now I can’t imagine how I could have continued to go on, discussing issues like migrant crisis without having come into contact with some of the people who have migrated or still are migrating, at least for a while, on a daily basis, and heard their stories and struggles, and shared a moment of their time.
And it frightens me to think that the people taking decisions about those political issues have usually not spent any, or very little time with the people they’re speaking of.

So what could I begin to say?
I think the most important thing is, on mental health as on migrants, is that those labels don’t mean a thing. What is most striking, after a day of work , is the sheer diversity. For example in terms of migrants stories: you will meet with a guy from Syria, just arrived here after 6 months of travel, (that can represent for example:4 months in Turkey paying and trying to find a guy – one of the least shady ones – who’ll take you on a boat, get stopped by police, sent to detention, start again, until you embak on a life threathening journey on a small inflatable canoe accross the mediterranian, to Greece, then the balkans, from camp to camp and administrative procedures going on and on), living in a camp with 4 other people in his room – none of them speaking arabic. He tells you he was an ingenieur, doesn’t know where the rest of his family is, somewhere in towns taken over by rebels, or the government forces. The next consult is a  woman from Erythrea, who doesn’t know how to read or write, has come here after being rejected by her family for having an affair with a man who refused to marry her. The next one, a guy from Algeria, here since 15 years, his asylum request denied years ago but can’t be sent back because his country doesn’t accept it, who works a little, gets by, has known only this place and this country for years, but lives in a sort of limbo, wihtout any hope of a real social status.

None of these stories are the same. They do have in common that there is suffering  in each of those- after all, the immense majority of migrants don’t come to a psychiatrist, there a lot less likely to consult a psychiatrist – and indeed any doctor – than the general population, contrary to what far right politicians like to paint them as  “abusive health care consumers”, but everything else is vastly different:social status, here and before, cultural beliefs, psychiatric pathologies, vision of the future. What most of them have in common, also, is a immense amount of courage, of gratitude, of hope- sometimes against all odds. They are people fighting for what they think ought to be theirs:freedom, safety, ability to work and earn a living, ability to be themselves, ability to live in a country whitout daily bombings.  And, for most of them, they are people trying to come to term with the fact that this country – the country of neutrality and human rights – says no, you’ll not get those things here.
And it shouldn’t be surprising at all, all these differences, really: they are human beings, and when you try to label lives under categories, you fail.

So I have been rendered blog-speechless by all the things I’ve learned and all the people I’ve met. I’ll try to put together a few sentences about indvidual stories, and about mental health, which also deserves it, in the next few weeks. I’ll probably mostly speak of my own incompetence, facing those situations – but after all it should be mentionned as well, how helpless we sometimes feel.


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