Musings on Mental Health Activism

In a perfect world, all people would have a basic understanding of mental illness and respect that it is very real and painful. In a perfect world, if someone disclosed their mental health status and said that it affected their decisions and life, other people would respect that without requiring evidence, gory details, or an exact explanation of how serious it really was (are you sure it wasn’t all in your head?)

Alas, this is not the world we live in. Disclosing mental health status often comes with a round of questioning and well intentioned but utterly unhelpful suggestions (have you tried exercising?) that can quickly put one on the defensive. I personally have felt pressure when writing about my mental health to engage in the “just how bad was it?” defensiveness, pre-emptively listing out symptoms and consequences to illustrate that no really, this needed to be taken seriously.

Nearly every article I read about mental illness feels the need to either specify that depression is a serious illness (if it’s a scientific or research based piece) or take a large chunk of its time to describe the internal experience (if it’s on the subjective side). There’s certainly nothing wrong with that impulse, and subjective descriptions of mental illness are incredibly important to increasing awareness and understanding, but almost never do I see someone write about an experience they had that was influenced by their mental illness without focusing heavily on symptoms and vivid, graphic descriptions.

This makes sense to some extent, but it seems odd to me that we cannot have mental illness be an influence in our lives without going the extra distance to explain the exact details. In the world as it stands, there is not enough understanding of mental illness to mention it as a factor without making your statement/article/conversation about mental illness.

Here’s where I get hung up.

As someone who wants to increase understanding and awareness of mental illness and mental health issues, as someone who is aware of these dynamics and the ways in which stigma against mental illness contributes to the requirement that mentally ill people prove how hard things are for them every.single.time, do I proceed by molding myself into the Good Depressed Person and patiently describing over and over (in the level of detail required by my listener to really understand) what it’s like in my head? Or is there something radical in simply letting myself say “I am depressed and that led to x, y, or z” without backtracking, explaining, or questioning myself?

There may be space for both of these options in the world of mental health activism. It’s easy to see how speaking openly about the internal experience of mental illness is part of activism. It very clearly increases awareness and understanding, and can help others respect the seriousness of a mental illness, as well as the fact that it is not a choice or a lifestyle. There are downsides though. I worry that making personal stories a constant factor in every discussion of mental illness sets an unhealthy precedent that people’s stories are required to be public. I worry that we’re painting a picture of mental illness that feeds into certain romantic notions of things like anorexia, while playing into the voyeuristic pleasure some people get in hearing about disturbing and graphic symptoms. I see this especially in discussions of self harm when the questions immediately turn to how deep, how often, where, pics.

It might be that having both tactics is the best choice so that we can continue to educate others about mental illness in a serious way while also recognizing that sometimes it isn’t the only or overwhelming factor in an individual’s life. Sometimes it’s just a part of life, like a twingy ankle or allergies. It gets in the way, but it doesn’t destroy.

Again, ideally, this could be a great way to move forward in activism. The problem comes with the lived experience of trying to mention your mental illness without defending it. People push. People overlook it. People argue and debate and yell after you’ve said you’re triggered. People invoke all the stereotypes of mental illness that you’ve been working so hard to fight against (lazy, taking the easy way out, not trying hard enough). These things, even if you know that they are unwarranted and are ignoring a very real factor (mental illness) hurt.

I don’t think anyone is obligated to always educate others when they talk or write about their mental health. You’re allowed to say “this thing triggered me, which relates to the rest of what I’m talking about in ways x, y, and z” without having to explain how your triggers came to be, what triggering looks like for you, and exactly how real and serious the experience was. I just don’t know how to let people do that while protecting them from the less informed folks who will take that as an opportunity to berate them for not liking triggery thing, or for not being able to cope with a situation, or whatever the case may be. And I don’t know how to recognize that people 100% have the right not to explain themselves while also knowing that these incidents might not help the larger aims of mental health activism.

This is the forever balancing act of oppressed groups that want to make things better. In order to gain the rights and treatment you know that you should have, you often need to play by the damaging rules of society as it is, putting you in a place to get hurt and perpetuating those same rules. How radical can we be in acting as if the world had already accepted us? While it might be idealistic and forward thinking to expect everyone to know about mental illness, does it actually do anyone any good when it comes to securing rights and reducing stigma?

There are no clear answers here about the “right” way to approach discussions about mental health or activism, but I wish we knew better how to help improve the world around us without making ourselves so vulnerable.

2 thoughts on “Musings on Mental Health Activism

  1. Merry says:

    Excellent article. I found it by googling ‘Good Depressed Person.’ It’s weird that in the midst of something so terrible, I am still seeking a socially acceptable path. I sometimes want to tell the world, that yes, I am suffering, and this suffering is valid, but I know I will regret it if I do. I want to be able to offer a solid explanation for my disappearances and my unclear history, much like a person with a physical disability would, without condescension (no, I don’t want to hear about your Yoga regimen) and being branded forever. I want to own to mental illness without afterwards having every statement I make viewed through the spectrum of a disordered mind.

  2. alison coan says:

    28 years ive had a mental illness. The stigma and sick comments ive had said to me from the mental health teams have nearly drove me to suicide not once maybe countless times. If you have a broken limb you get help straight away. Mental illness nothing. But were left thinking shall i end my life. We all need to get together and fight this system. Let those evil docs really see that we can be stronger. Not alone but lets all do it together.

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