With Mental Illness, Remember the First Wave in Fighting a Stigma is the Worst.

The time we’re most prone to perpetuating a stigma is, of course, when we’re unaware of it. In second place is when we’ve just been armed with new information and are first attempting to fight it.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of links and hashtags regarding mental illness and the stigma around it. It’s great to see, though I’m evaluating why, as a person with chronic and severe anxiety, my feelings about this are mixed.

Either way it’s great people are talking. I see truly kindhearted individuals all over social media promoting well-intentioned ideas from which I stand to benefit. Finally we’re talking about it.

We must remember, though, other times we’ve gained cultural sentience around a particular stigma and first tried to combat it. In the early 1990’s I remember people around me thinking it was enough not to have AIDS be one’s only association with homosexuality. But gay marriage? It took my country another decade or so to warm up to that.

So how have we faltered early on with discussion of mental illness? I’ve noticed two ways.

Number One: When calling attention to a cultural stigma, be careful not to signal boost anything that perpetuates either the stigma in question or a different one, particularly when money & corporate image are involved.

See: the #BellLetsTalk campaign. The majority of Bell’s donations from the hashtag are going to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, whose head of Gender Identity Service is Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who performs damaging and universally panned “conversion therapy” on transgender youth. Zucker’s work, which is directly being funded by #BellLetsTalk, makes him a criminal in the state of California. For more details on #BellLetsTalk read this post by Alexander Bauer.

So who gets hurt by the ill-researched good intentions of supporting one marginalized group? Another marginalized group. Of course.

[Note: Please don’t use me as a source for any activism that doesn’t concern me in particular. Transadvocate or Guerrilla Feminism have a better handle than me on trans/nonbinary issues and I highly recommend either.]

In 1885 author W.T. Stead wrote a scathing expose of London’s rampant child prostitution. The outcry in Britain was warranted and significant, so Parliament, to their credit, acted, but they threw a little extra in there. As a result of the same law that raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, male homosexuality was officially recriminalized. Oscar Wilde would be arrested under the same law as child sex traffickers were.

The lesson: Don’t be too reactionary, or abuse will slip through the cracks. If you’re reading this and have hashtagged #BellLetsTalk, no shame necessary, just learn from it.

Number Two: In raising awareness of a cultural stigma, first examine how you yourself have perpetuated it. Be public about it.

I’ve seen people (many of whom identify as Liberals) who routinely use words like “psycho” and “crazy” as a pejorative suddenly posting mental illness statistics and hashtagging #BellLetsTalk.

When I’ve heard you talk about your “crazy ex” and now see you posting articles on mental illness with no recognition of your previous falterings, I’m wary of trusting you as an ally. Stigma around mental illness is deep and pervasive, and everyone here is problematic. Step ONE is looking at your own history.

I’ll go first. I’ve been close with people who have expressed thoughts of self-harm, and my reaction was to clam up and avoid the subject. I didn’t ask how I could support them, I just hoped my hearing them say it was enough. In one case actual self-harm happened and I berated them for doing it. I treated their self-harm as something they had done to me.

When someone is clearly upset my first response has, for most of my life, been “Do you need space.” Why? I was projecting. Every time. I asked if they needed space because I was uncomfortable and wanted space myself.

Now instead of asking “Do you need space” I ask, “Would you feel better if I was responding or is just being here listening good?” That both invites clarity on how I can help and brings boundaries into the conversation in a way that isn’t implicitly restrictive. Let me be clear: Self-care when helping others is crucial. Provided you listen to the response it’s perfectly okay to just say “I feel anxious because I don’t know what to do right now. I want to be supportive. Can you let me know that my just being present is enough?” Asking this has eased a tremendous amount of anxiety for me and has made just listening easier. Do this instead of jumping straight to advice-giving.

Obviously “Do you need space” might work just fine for some people in some situations. The point here is that I’ve only gotten better at fighting the stigma by recognizing it in myself, even as a person with a mental illness. I’m not advocating self-flagellation here, but I also don’t trust activism without self-criticism. (Having done enough of it myself :P)

It’s also important to recognize that you’re only as much of an ally as others say you’re being, and that even after you’ve looked deep within yourself you’re still going to be prone to old habits. Being an ally is a process, not a flag you can put in the ground so you have something to point at when your behaviour is questioned.

We need people to be more public with their mistakes so less of us have the pressure to stand up on social media and say “I have a mental illness,” putting ourselves at risk of increased stigma, both external and internalized. Being public with mental illness might have a normalizing effect for some, but believe me, it does far less to actually fight the stigma than standing up and saying “Here are times I’ve displayed it. This is what it looks like, and I know, because I did it.”


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