Originally published in the RLC newsletter, February, 2013
“Donuts saved my life. You can quote me on that!”
“Raw carrots almost sent me to the hospital once.”
“Wheat bread is the worst thing I can eat.”
“A diet high in fruits and veggies makes me unbelievably sick.”
“Have you heard about that study where the women who drink the most coffee are the least likely to be diagnosed with depression?”
These are just a few excerpts from a variety of conversations within our community that demonstrate one common theme: ‘Healthy eating’ is in the eye (and body) of the beholder and cannot be universally determined or described with simplistic pyramid graphics. Yet, for a variety of reasons from financial to health-related, there’s a strong tendency throughout our culture to evaluate everyone’s nutritional choices according to the same narrow standards. As it is so in the media and our broader communities, so is it within the mental health system. In fact, a sense of responsibility for the health and well being of people receiving services combined with stretched resources and other practical challenges may sometimes drive providers to even more stringent measures.
“When I was in the hospital, I would tell them that I have Celiac disease and can’t eat gluten. They would give me a veggie burger or a salad. Every time. It’s incredibly stressful to not have access to food you can eat or to be told that a salad is good enough to eat for basically every meal.” Stories like this one are commonplace and speak loudly to the potential impact of lack of understanding and loss of control. In fact, people have reported a variety of personal outcomes, including the aforementioned higher stress levels, physical illness, distorted body image, unhealthy patterns of eating based on fear of future restrictions, and a general feeling of loss of control that, for some, leads to a greater sense of sadness and/or hopelessness.
This issue is also echoed in the Disability Law Center’s report published in a few months back. Among the food-related concerns expressed in the report are the ‘collectivization’ (combining of) food stamps between multiple people receiving services at the same organization, refrigerators being locked or considered ‘off limits’ during certain hours, and lack of input into what is purchased or the timing of meals. Although not a solution to some of the broader issues, it is important for people to know their rights where this issue is concerned. Rights include (but are not limited to) the following:
- It is illegal to ‘collectivize’ (combine) food stamps between people who do not live in the same residence
- People living in residential programs should be given an ‘opt out’ option to collectivization (combining) of food stamps, and be able to retain their own food stamps and make their own purchases
- It is a human rights violation to lock the kitchen or refrigerator in a residential program, or to limit kitchen access to certain times of day.
It is a human rights violation to offer no opportunities for menu input, or completely restrict the purchase of certain types of food.
As helpful and necessary as it is to understand our rights, we must always ultimately return to understanding our basic humanness (which can only truly happen when our rights and personhood have been fully recognized).
“When I’ve been hospitalized, there have been days where the only thing that emotionally registered was seeing a chocolate glazed donut on the breakfast tray. It was even better if somebody in the staff hadn’t cut it into pieces to share with other patients – because a whole chocolate donut would be too unhealthy.”
Our culture suggests we should judge a statement like this, to worry aloud about the weight issues so prevalent in our communities (and particularly among individuals served by the mental health system) or to wonder if this isn’t a sign of ‘disordered’ or ‘compulsive’ eating that could have long-term, negative effects on one’s health. But what about the power of choice, small pleasures and trust in personal judgment? Is it access that creates our problems, or is it the many restrictions we face by the health care system, and by ourselves? And, do we find healing in kindness and compassion or rules and rigidity? The answers to these questions may be as individual as each of our food needs and preferences are, but a willingness to hear each other out and create space for our differences will always be the right direction.