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Tattoos and Mental Illness?

Recently, while browsing one of the social media platforms that I am on, I read a comment in a mental health support group that I am a member of. Well, I tried to read it at least. Beside the bastardization of the English Language and the lack of punctuation and lack of cohesive thoughts, this particular post was quite annoying. Here is the general idea of what was being said.

You shouldn’t be allowed to have a Fire or EMS related tattoo until you have “earned” it. If you get it before you are “entitled” to it, you should be ostracized. The original poster than goes on to explain how he “earned” his tattoos (to paraphrase) cutting his teeth on the mean streets of his volunteer fire house’s first due district. He further explained how his first fire was 5 years into his “career”. So it got me thinking, what does one have to do to “earn” a tattoo? Being in the Fire Service nearly 20 years now, and not yet having one Fire tattoo, have I not “earned” it? Surely I have been in longer than this individual, and have seen more fires than he but yet have I really “earned” it. Also, does one really need to “earn” a tattoo? I thought you found an artist that you like, and pay them for their artwork on your body.

When I was a young volunteer firefighter, I had a kid in my volunteer house who went out and purchased himself a “we fight what you fear” type tattoo and all without having gone through the fire academy. Actually to the best of my knowledge, he still hasn’t and this was over 10 years ago. Did he “earn” that tattoo? Well by the original posters definition, obviously not. Despite all of this discussion about “earning” tattoos, I couldn’t help but to draw the parallel to mental illness.

Are we, as an emergency service culture, judging others that they can’t have a mental illness as they haven’t “earned” it like others have? Is there a finite amount of mental illness to go around and by them having one, it diminishes what others can have? How many times have you heard some variation on the expression of, “Well, you haven’t seen what I’ve seen!” You are probably right, and in the same vein, have you seen what the other party has seen? It’s almost as if we take something like mental illness, and equate an experience factor to it. (Another one of my pet peeves is the “Experience” argument but that’s for another day)

In a similar vein, when we hear stories from responders that have a diagnosis of PTSD, and we realize what they have gone through, we find ourselves saying things like, “I haven’t been through that much, I can’t have a problem” or the flip side of “Look at what they’ve been through and they don’t have a problem, I can’t have one either as I haven’t suffered as much.”

It is my belief that until we get to a point where we can recognize that mental illness can and is caused by a wide variety of situations, and impacts people differently, we will never truly have a handle on it. The constant eating of our young mentality and the “You haven’t seen enough to have a mental illness” mindset needs to change. Without this change, we will never truly be able to address the stigma associated with mental illness and break down the barriers to treatment.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, I’m going to go back to “earning” my tattoo, whatever the hell that means.

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