The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal

[Content note: depression and eating disorders]

I recently read Olivia’s excellent blog post, “I’m Tired Of Curating.” In it she describes her experiences as a mental health advocate and a person with mental illness(es), and it resonated a lot with me:

I’m not allowed to share these thoughts because they glorify an eating disorder, because I’m not actively telling people how awful it is to be sick, because I’m remembering how intertwined I am with the disease, the way it really is part of the way my mind works rather than something that needs to be kicked out of my life.

[…] I’m sick of trying to spin these thoughts into something useful or meaningful. Since I’ve started to write openly about treatment and recovery and mental illness, I feel as if I need to be a role model or someone that others can look to to see that mental illness does not destroy your life. And yet it’s consumed all of mine and I feel as if I’ve gained nothing except 50 pounds.

I don’t want to curate my words today. I don’t want to be careful not to trigger anyone or to mistakenly portray the ways I behave in a positive light. I want to be allowed the space to honestly portray my mental illness, including the way that it looks seductive when I’m anxious and overwhelmed. Right now restriction is the only thing that makes sense to me. I hate having to hedge that with the caveat that I know it’s not healthy and no other people shouldn’t do it and yes it will fuck up my life.

[…] As someone who has a mental illness and advocates for people with mental illnesses, sometimes I feel like I’m not actually allowed to have my mental illness. Sure, I get to talk about the experience and share inspiring stories or even stories about how nastybad it is and tips and tricks that I’ve picked up, but I don’t get to publicly have the thoughts and feelings that come with a jerkbrain. I don’t get to type “I think I’m a shitstain on the world” without people disregarding everything else I say. I don’t get to type “I truly would like to skip all upcoming meals indefinitely” without being accused of promoting unhealthy behaviors. Newsflash world: I have depression and an eating disorder. These are things that I think on the regular. If it’s too ugly to see it and you have to look away when I can’t be polished, then I don’t understand the point of my activism and advocacy. I don’t understand why I write anymore.

When I read this, it suddenly put my experiences into a context that made sense. Because I’ve been there.

Not only have I felt like I couldn’t share my negative experiences with mental illness, but I was also made to feel like I couldn’t share my victories, either. I once posted on my personal Facebook that I was proud of myself for having been (safely) off of medication for a year, and someone messaged me letting me know that I shouldn’t post things like that because it’ll make people who still need to be on medication feel bad, and that this might be helpful for me to know “considering [my] future career.” Except my personal Facebook page isn’t the same as my professional counseling website, and it’s not even the same as my blog. It’s my space to share my life with my friends. The purpose of my Facebook is to connect with my friends, not to affirm other people. Of course, I like to affirm other people and often try to, but that shouldn’t be an expectation placed on me. It shouldn’t have to be the primary goal of my self-expression.

So that’s a weird, narrow line we mental health advocates have to walk. We’re criticized for being honest about the ugly sides of mental illness (either because it means we’re “glorifying” mental illness or because we’re “confirming negative stereotypes” or [insert accusation here), and we’re criticized for “making others feel bad” when we’re honest about successful recovery. (And, yes, I get to simultaneously believe that there is nothing wrong with taking psychiatric medication and to be proud of myself for getting to a place where I am able to stop taking it. You can accept medical treatment as necessary and morally acceptable and you can be glad when you don’t need medical treatment anymore!)

As a result, we end up presenting a sanitized version of our actual struggles that’s neither overly negative nor inappropriately jealousy-inducing. “Jerkbrain’s really getting me down today, please send cute animal photos.” “Today sucked so I’m going to do some much-needed self-care.” And so on and so forth. Obviously, those can be completely valid and genuine expressions, but as Olivia pointed out, sometimes it’s a lot less pretty.

A while back, I wrote about a particular strain of criticism of people (generally teenage girls) who “glorify” or “enable” mental illness symptoms by presenting them in a romantic or sexy light. The argument goes that these blogs may discourage young people from seeing their mental illnesses as treatable (or seeing them as illnesses at all) and encourage them to do harmful behaviors associated with those illnesses–self-harm, restricting, purging, etc. In that post, I concluded: “It’s easy to say, ‘Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.’ It’s harder to say, ‘Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.'”

Unfortunately, as I’m learning, it’s not actually particularly difficult to say that at all; you just have to be a little more subtle. Certainly nobody in our communities would ever come right out and say that people with mental illnesses should hide all of their symptoms; heavens no, that would be ableist. Instead, they fill our Facebook threads with condescending reminders to “take better care of yourself” and “that’s just jerkbrain talking.” We can discuss our symptoms as long as we make it absolutely clear that we hate the symptoms and the illness and are completely dedicated to the project of making a full recovery. To admit that sometimes we don’t want to recover is to “glorify” mental illness and “enable” others. It’s to “confirm stereotypes” about people with mental illness, as if the problem is overlapping with a stereotype and not stereotyping people to begin with.

The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal is real and it’s a narrow ledge to squeeze yourself onto. Be honest, but don’t freak us out. Motivate those who are still struggling, but don’t give a rosy and unrealistic perspective. Hate your illness because it’s unhealthy and bad for you, but don’t hate your illness because that’s ableist and implies that there’s something wrong with having a mental illness. Recover, but not so much or so visibly that you make others feel bad. Accomplish because it’s inspirational for others and because people with mental illnesses can do anything neurotypical people can, but don’t accomplish too much, or else are you sure you’re really all that mentally ill? Maybe you just want attention.

I used to blame myself a lot for doing what Olivia calls “curating”–for only portraying my depression in a particular way, not too negative and not too positive. Now I’ve come to see it as a double-bind that everyone who discloses mental illness is placed in, one way or another. Why is it that we’re the ones constantly accused of “encouraging” mental illness when everything about the way our society is set up encourages it? Why is a teenage girl who posts a selfie of herself with mascara tears running down her face any more responsible for someone else’s mental illness than the neurotypical adults who tell each other to “calm down” and “just get over it,” or the boss who creates a stressful and anxiety-provoking work environment, or the primary care doctor who fails to spot the warning signs of depression and refer their patient to a therapist, or the parent who tells their teenager that they’ll “grow out of it”?

We all contribute to ableism and mental illness stigma in various ways, and those of us who actually have mental illness tend to be more aware of that than anyone.

As usual, I’ve got no solution to this except to pay attention to your automatic responses to folks with mental illnesses discussing their experiences. Watch what makes you go “Wow, that is So Real, that is So Brave of you to share” and what makes you go “Uh, are you sure you want to post that so publicly?” The answer might be instructive.

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The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal

4 thoughts on “The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal

  1. 1

    Wow. My immediate, gut response to this is, “You’re hanging out with the wrong people.”

    I began to suspect I had a mental illness at 12. (Spoiler: I do, a fairly severe one or combination thereof.) And all that stuff about being afraid to be honest, fear of being accused of “glorifying,” or “being dramatic” or “trying to get attention” sounds like what I heard from my abusers and abusive mental health professionals, not like anything that needs to be coming out of the mouths of people who style themselves advocates.

    I’ve been in inpatient psychiatric care at least five times, and you know, I always feel incredibly safe and at home there, not because of the staff or the way sharps are locked in a cabinet, but because of the other patients and their utter lack of bullshit. There’s no point in playing weird status games in there.

    As far as I’m concerned, you can have your experience, and speak about your experience, however you damn please and no one else has any right to police that in the name of righteousness. Doing so doesn’t demonstrate anything but internalized stigma. Saying “it’s just the jerk brain,” okay, that can be useful sometimes to say to oneself when you really need to push through and get things done. And sometimes it’s great to have a friend remind you that depression lies. But no matter what oddity of brain chemistry causes it, your experience is REAL. It’s not imaginary. You really feel those bad feelings. Sometimes saying “oh, jerkbrain” is just another way of invalidating that.

    I beg your pardon for going on at such length. It just made me super angry that you’re going through this. It’s hard enough having a mental illness without promoting the idea that there’s a right or a wrong way to have it. That idea is one of the reasons why mental health care is so problematic in the first place.

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