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mental health mondays :: talk therapy?

we live in peculiar times, my friends. i could give you hundreds of examples [and you could give me far more], but one of the ones that occurred to me this week with regards to mental health is that we at once encourage people to be more open about their mental illnesses, as a way of normalizing these struggles and to help remove the stigma of having a disorder, while at the same time, our media is littered with stories of the scary psycho, the dangerous psycho, he tremendously inconvenient crazy person, or the person who seems just fine on the outside. to say that our messages on mental health are mixed is like saying some people like chocolate: there's a level of understatement that borders on deceptive.

so what should we be doing in order to have a more rational discussion about mental illness? you think i'm going to be able to answer that? ha ha. i'm flattered. not gonna happen. but i do have some suggestions that i've picked up from my own battles, from stories people have shared with me, and from my various types of research.

take these for what they are, which are well-meant suggestions. they are not proven strategies.

part one :: what should you do?

and let me make it clear that, by "you", i mean you who have or have had mental disorders, and me. because ultimately, any discussion on this level requires the voice of experience. but before i get started on that, let me get this out of the way: it is not your job to be the ambassador for crazy. you should talk to exactly as many people as you feel comfortable with, at whatever stage you feel comfortable doing so. it is generally a good idea to talk about these things with those you love and who love you, if only so that there's someone who knows what's really happening. what i'm suggesting below are simply a few extra things that you could be doing if you feel up to it.

1. think of the details of what it feels like when you're mired in depression, having a panic attack, going through a manic or dissociative phase, having hallucinations, or experiencing traumatic flashbacks. don't concern yourself with the official descriptions; if you want to talk about the experience of having a mental illness, make it personal. most people have heard the "official line" about mental illnesses, but they can't translate that into human terms. you can be a bridge.

2. when it comes to sharing things at work, it's worth it to look before leaping. yes, in most places it is illegal to fire an employee for having a mental illness, but employers know that well enough to find a way around it. there's also fuck all to back those laws up in a lot of cases, so the most you're likely to get is an edict forcing your employer to take you back. if you want actual compensation, you'll need to sue, which can be expensive, stressful and drawn out. so before you reveal any of your health problems, make sure that you have a good sense of how the people in charge view mental illness. one survey of british employers said that forty percent admitted they would have serious reservations about hiring someone with a mental illness. so start from the point of view that you probably have, at best, a fifty-fifty chance of your employer wanting to help, versus wanting to find some way to get you out the door.

one "stealth" tactic would be to find out if other employees have taken leave for mental illness and observe how people reacted to that. i worked in one office where one employee was rushed to hospital with a work-related anxiety attack. i found this out because his divisional manager saw fit to share the information at a staff meeting, joking about it so boisterously that he [and a couple of the other managers] were reduced to tears from laughing so hard. at another place, some of the employees referred to time taken off by a coworker as "her vacation". yes, we should be fighting the stigma of mental illness, but nothing requires you to put yourself in a position of vulnerability in the name of social progress unless you feel comfortable doing so. and keep in mind that there may be no legal requirement that your human resources team [or whoever you speak to] keep your information confidential. company presidents, managers, directors and department members are never under any obligation to respect confidentiality.

feel free to call people on their bullshit as the situation permits. that can involve simply not laughing if you hear a coworker's mental health condition being mocked, or pointing out that it's a pretty unsympathetic thing to say. i've found it helpful in these sort of situations to politely ask what someone means, exactly, when they crack jokes or make disparaging remarks. at the least, showing some sort of resistance might make people less prone to making such comments around you. but it might also make them feel awkward about having done so at all.

3. when talking to friends and family, whoever you trust enough to be open with, don't pin yourself into being defined by your mental illness. yes, you should be honest, particularly when you're feeling overwhelmed or very upset. but part of asking people to understand your disorder is asking them to understand that you've always been the same person. getting so wrapped up in the misery of mental illness that you become a completely different person isn't helpful for anybody [caveat: does not apply to addicts]. people who really care about you should be supportive and interested and non-judgmental. but they didn't sign on to be a therapist and may have their own struggles when it comes to interpreting and dealing with mental illness. that doesn't make them a bad person. and keep in mind that a mental illness doesn't absolve you of being a caring, supportive, interested person. your relationships started as two-sided and they should remain so, even if you're needier for a time.

part two :: what the "other you" can do

i've already covered this, and i don't really have a lot to add at this time.

part three :: what "society" can do

part of the reason why we struggle to answer the questions of mental illness in society is because "society" is a big, nebulous thing, that's actually not anything except an aggregate of averages. but there are aspects of "society" that we can address. specifically, i think there are a lot of things that the media can be doing to forward this conversation. so let's say that, for the moment, they represent the voice of what we call society. some of you reading this may be part of the media. or you may have access to members of the media. or you can interact with the media through facebook, twitter, or by showing up in their lobbies and shouting at people. [ok, maybe let's not do that last one, as fun as it sounds.]

1. get mental health experts to comment on issues of mental health. i should be used to it, but nonetheless it still amazes and infuriates me that, whenever there is discussion on the issue of mental illness, the media coverage includes family members of the afflicted and police, but no psychiatrists, psychologists, or any kind of mental health specialist. this constitutes an outright refusal to provide salient facts.

2. provide context where mental health is concerned. mental health is chiefly mentioned in the media for one of two reasons: someone with a mental health problem has been killed or injured by police or someone with a mental health problem is charged with a violent crime. when you use a vague term like "mental health problems" in a specific case, or if you just name the condition without further elaboration, you're doing a disservice. most people don't know the difference between various mental disorders and what kind of behaviour they cause. explain it. it's what you're there for.

3. don't contribute to the culture of denial. when something bad happens, a lot of people [*cough* nra *cough*] will talk about mental illness and the importance of dealing with this. stop letting that slide. in the case of politicians, ask what their proposals are. or ask why they think mental illness is the problem when statistics show that those with mental disorders aren't any more prone to violent outbursts than the rest of us. or just bring the subject up at a later date, in order to follow up. there is nothing to say that all news has to focus only on things that happened that morning. the best news agencies in the world do their finest work by stepping back and looking at an issue that isn't immediately in the public eye.

that's it. that's all i got. well, i might have a little more with regards to the upcoming u.s. presidential election, but that's for another post.

until then, do what you can, no more and no less. it's the only way progress can happen. 


This post really resonates with me. In academia, people are fond of saying that we shouldn't stigmatize mental illness or any other form of disability, but it's very rare to hear anyone talking about THEIR OWN mental illness. Almost every graduate student I know (myself included) is on antidepressants, yet discussions of mental illness and ableism remain theoretical. If I were a junior professor, I'd be very wary of revealing any condition that might brand me as more unpredictable or less capable than my colleagues. It's a real problem.

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