Demolishing Stigma

A ‘fashion statement’ for Christchurch, NZ                        Image credit: Strawbleu/

Last Sunday at 8.00am New Zealand saw it’s first building demolished by implosion.  It was only about two kilometres from me but I couldn’t hear the noise because of the army of helicopters flying overhead.  My part of the sky was down-wind so I guess they chose to watch from here.  I did however watch it live on the internet.  It was quite amazing to watch and a friend who saw the real thing said it was incredible to see.  63 kilograms of explosives and eight seconds later, the 14 storey building, damaged by repeated earthquakes, was simply rubble.  If you’re interested to watch it, check out this site.

Around 80 percent of the buildings in our central business district (CBD) have been, or will be, demolished following the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.  My understanding is that buildings have not been demolished by implosion until now because if the risk of further damage to land and surrounding buildings, and at one stage I heard said that the noise would be too traumatic for already traumatised residents.  Already what part of the CBD we can access is a barren wasteland.  It’s hard to even remember what was on the vacant lots.  Demolition continues in many places and while most of it has been done by an almost brick-by-brick process, I understand that Sunday’s implosion was a test case to decide whether more high rise buildings would be demolished in the same manner.  It’s a whole lot quicker and a whole heap cheaper.

The building in which my parents owned an apartment was demolished, and through that process I have learnt so much more about building demolition than I ever needed to know.  The seven storey building first had to be emptied of residents belongings.  Residents themselves weren’t allowed up (they were all over 65) because they wouldn’t have been able to run fast enough to get out if another quake struck while up there, so family did it.  My brother and I donned our allocated hard hats and high vis (as in the picture above) vests and entered the doomed building for three hours to salvage what we could.  Then the construction workers moved in and dumped everything (out the window) we hadn’t been able to retrieve, or was too badly damaged to be worth taking.  Next the building was gutted, leaving simply  outside walls and the floor, before the heavy artillery moved in an brought the building down floor by floor.

The shell of the building left, the top storey already removed.

You might well be asking why I am sharing my knowledge about demolition of high rise buildings.  It’s because I can see similarities in these doomed and dangerous buildings we have in my city to the stigma of mental illness.  It’s a blot of the landscape and needs to be removed so that life can go on without the judgement, ignorance and hurt that is stigma.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about what we can do to remove stigma.  What can I do?  What can we each do?  I know there are organisations specifically targeting this issue in different countries, but sometimes I wonder just what progress is being made.  I know a big deal is made of the celebrities who come out and admit to their own mental health struggles, and in New Zealand we have seen what rugby great, John Kirwan has done in this respect along with others like comedian Mike King.  Each country can no doubt tell similar stories of those willing to out themselves.

I wonder though, is that enough?  Isn’t that a bit like the brick-by-brick demolition?  It’s great, and hopefully one day it will get the stigma reduced but I wonder whether we can afford to take the time this takes?  And is it enough?  Do we instead need to try the implosion technique of demolition?  Do we need to don our hard hats and blast stigma out of this planet?

Recently I’ve seen a friend struggle with the whole stigma issue in her life.  I have admired and encouraged her to speak out to friends and family about her mental illness, but I also hurt greatly for her when I saw her being criticised and blamed.  Like me, she really believed it was important to be open, and that by doing so, people would be exposed to more of the reality of mental illness.  But somehow it has backfired, and I suspect she wonders why she even tried.  Instead of taking the opportunity to appreciate the struggles she and many others face, they have used her bravery to fire right back at her.  I hate the pain it has caused her, and I almost wish I hadn’t encouraged her in her resolve to be open.

When I published my book in 2009 (in my own name) I knew that I was taking a risk, and knew that I might come up against stigma.  Again, when I started blogging in my own name, and opened it up to friends and family, I knew again that I was taking a risk.  Would stigma come back to bite me on the butt?  I am been very fortunate that I haven’t been subjected to it (knowingly anyway) but I hate that friends are scared to admit to themselves that they have a mental illness, simply because of the fear of stigma.  Let alone admitting it to anyone else.

Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to this, except I know that somehow we all (as in the world) need to do more to demolish stigma.  One thing I am convinced on though is that the more we talk about the issue the more awareness there will be.  I know that takes risks, and it concerns me when people get hurt in the process of those risks but it seems that to build awareness, it’s going to take education.

We just need to look at the events in Denver recently to see what role ignorance plays in stigma.  I’m sure that this is going to take concious effort on all our parts.  Whatever we do I believe that the more we tackle the problem, the easier it will be for the next generation of mental illness sufferers.  And that has to be a good thing.

What do you think?  How is the best way to demolish stigma?  A little bit at a time, or an explosion?

“People who wouldn’t dream of saying a racial or ethnic slur glibly talk about nut cakes, lunatics and crazies. Perhaps they stigmatize the mentally ill because society always marginalizes people who are different. Or people may blame the person, not realizing that mental illness is a no-fault brain disease that you can’t just will away. Then again they may feel unconsciously that they are to blame. Finally, people may have an unconscious fantasy that mental illness is actually contagious — so one must stay away.”

 – Elyn Saks