November 16th is “International Day for Tolerance”, for which U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared: “I call on all people and governments to actively combat fear, hatred and extremism with dialogue, understanding and mutual respect. Let us advance against the forces of division and unite for our shared future.”

November 21-29 is “Social Inclusion Week”, which aims to ensure all Australians feel included and valued, with opportunities to participate fully in society. It connects local communities, workmates, family, and friends in order to build and strengthen relationships and networks, addressing isolation and exclusion by supporting people who may be unable to help themselves.

You might wonder why we are focusing on these topics. After all, as mental health helpers we are typically looking into how individuals may be able to enhance their wellbeing, but internet searches reveal mostly what governmental and community agencies advocate doing to achieve social integration. So is this Mission Impossible, or are there things each one of us, individually, can do to promote a tolerant and inclusive society? Even if we discover some points of action, how will taking them improve our wellbeing and that of our clients? Let us explain.

What is social inclusion?

First, let’s agree that when we say “social inclusion”, we mean the process by which we try to ensure equal opportunities for all, regardless of background or present status, so that they can achieve their full potential in life. The goal is that every member of our society be able to participate actively in all aspects of life, including civic, social, economic, and political activities and decision-making processes. When we behave more tolerantly of other languages, cultures, ways of doing life and work, and even physical and socio-emotional needs, we foster inclusion.

Who is at risk of social exclusion?

The surprisingly long list of vulnerable groups in our society means that, at one time or other, most of us will have needs that thrust us into an at-risk group and thus put us in danger of being excluded by the mainstream. You are unlikely to have been a mental health helper for very long if you have not ever been involved with at least one of these: homeless, mentally ill, prisoners, minorities/ethnic groups, indigenous persons, youth, older people, migrants, those with disabilities, migrants, people with HIV-AIDS, LGBT community members, and women.

How does embracing social inclusion help us?

The wellbeing factors are subtle and the rewards for adopting an inclusive stance not always immediate, but they are real. Apart from the fact that equality is the law and most of us feel better when we obey it, we know that the diversity created by social inclusion is valuable in the world now evolving. Tolerant, inclusive attitudes create prosperous, stable societies, although such communities are also better prepared for change. Many cultures contributing to the economy is good for business. When all groups truly participate, the breadth of opinions provides the checks and balances crucial for continued development of the society. When all contribute to positive narratives for an inclusive society of the future, the stories act like a powerful magnet drawing all of society toward its envisioned future through the shared vision embraced by all stakeholders.

What you can do

Admittedly, much of the heavy lifting towards social inclusion is done by governments and agencies through policy, legislation, social programs, and inclusiveness-generating infrastructure — but not all of it. There is much you can do as a mental health practitioner and as an individual; here are a few ideas.

As a counsellor, social worker, psychologist, teacher, doctor, or other helper:

Be aware of the backgrounds and particular needs of students/clients/patients in your classroom or consultation rooms (for example, people from some cultures may be uncomfortable to undress for an examination, or in counselling rooms, to discuss certain topics; students from some cultures may need some school days off for religious observances). Note the possible need to modify the environment to enable physical access and/or to supplement materials or techniques of interaction for the hearing- or vision-impaired.

Ensure that language in the environment is bias-free, respectful, inclusive, and dignity-preserving for any whose cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, or religious beliefs are different from yours:

  • Use individuals’ preferred terms, names, and pronouns
  • Avoid offensive slang terms
  • Help inform/educate colleagues about appropriate language usage (e.g., “children with Down’s syndrome”, not “Down’s kids”)
  • Provide good role modelling whenever referring to other cultures/religions/lifestyles; watch for any comments/jokes/attitudes that are intolerant, hateful, or disrespectful of non-mainstream groups.

As a neighbour:

  • Invite an older person who’s alone over for a meal, or include the person in your next dinner party
  • Ask a person with disabilities if he or she would like to come along for your weekly shop, getting their groceries at the same time
  • Organise a street-wide get-together (morning tea, anyone?) for all the neighbours to meet the new family from another country
  • Include any same-age immigrant children in your child’s birthday parties or other gatherings

As a coach or sports enthusiast:

  • Can you bring together individuals from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds for a sporting event?
  • Can you organise a league to give those with disabilities a chance to play?
  • If you live in a remote Indigenous community, could you put together a structured event for young residents there?

Ideas abound for practical ways to foster tolerance and social inclusiveness. Beyond logical reasons to be pro-active in this arena, there is the feel-good factor. It’s just fun to interact with different others and find out what makes them tick!

Written by Dr. Meg Carbonatto

References:

  • Curatolo, J. (2014). The benefits of team sport to promote social inclusion amongst the disadvantaged. Right Now. Retrieved on 13 October, 2015, from: hyperlink.
  • DESA. (2009). Creating an inclusive society: Practical strategies to promote social integration. DESA. Retrieved on 13 October, 2015, from: hyperlink.
  • Earlychildhood News. (2008). Inclusion: Integrating special kids in a childcare setting. Excelligence Learning Corporation. Retrieved on 13 October, 2015, from: hyperlink.
  • Inclusion in Child Care. (n.d.). Inclusion in centre-based child care services. Jillys.com.au. Retrieved on 13 October, 2015, from: hyperlink.
  • Staley, K. (2014). Being tolerant when you’re not affirming. LEARN NC. Retrieved on 13 October, 2015, from: hyperlink.