Imaginary Neighborhoods; On Destigmatizing Mental Illness

There are many things that impact mental health. I’d say it goes without saying that racism and oppression are two very large things, but maybe it really does need to be said.

Jul 3, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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No Shame Day happened all over the internet and it was good.

Yesterday was No Shame Day.

I do not think I can do justice to Siwe's story, especially not when it has been presented here. Suffice to say in this space that Bassey Ikpi started the nonprofit Siwe Project as a way to raise mental health awareness in the African diaspora. And the Siwe Project organized No Shame Day for people to share their stories.

Of course, I've shared my stories before. I talk about mental health on a pretty regular basis because the social stigma attached to mental health does everyone a profound harm. To deny that mental health is a part of our overall health is to ignore that our minds and our bodies are all part and parcel of our selves.

It's easier for me, though still not always easy, to talk about these things because I am a white person. In fact, I'm a white lady - and, in recent  history, the mental health of white ladies has been an often-discussed thing. I can't regret the invention of the vibrator, and I do love The Yellow Wallpaper, don't get me wrong. But the context for me to speak about these things already exists.

That's why I think the Siwe Project is so important. It centers voices that mainstream mental health discourse does not generally represent.

This is why I didn't post on No Shame Day. I want to support the Siwe Project and stand in solidarity with it - because I think that is vital. But I also don't want to be that derailing white person talking about how they don't have any shame. So yesterday, on No Shame Day, I listened.

You can search Twitter for the #NoShame hashtag, but that’s also used for some frivolous stuff. It’s worth scrolling, though. It’s worth listening.

There are many things that impact mental health. I’d say it goes without saying that racism and oppression are two very large things, but maybe it really does need to be said. Racism and classism and other issues of oppression have a huge impact on mental health.

I think about this a lot on the internet, when discussions of oppression get really heated. There is the famous Tone Argument – which basically is that your argument is invalid unless you say it nicely enough that the listener isn’t offended by your anger. It’s a classic derailing technique.

And it assumes that the person on the underside of that oppression not only has the vocabulary to have an academic discussion about something but that they have the emotional energy and mental well being to have that conversation in a way that doesn't offend anyone. That’s so fucked up, y’all.

Every day is the right day to have these conversations. Every day is the right day to talk to people about mental health. Not only because having these conversations is the only way to get past the stigma, but because it’s the only way to make sure resources are out there where people can easily find them.

Having access to resources is only one aspect of mental health care, of course. I mean, being able to go to therapy is hugely important to me. And I don’t think I’d be doing nearly so well without it. But therapy isn’t for everyone and it’s also not accessible to everyone.

As important is the existence of supportive community. Stick with me for a minute here.

In 1969, Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, appeared before the Senate during a hearing on PBS funding. The video of this often gets circulated to illustrate how awesome Mr. Rogers was. One of the concepts he talks about is a neighborhood expression of care.

I believe in metaphorical neighborhoods, of course; I spend a lot of time in online neighborhoods. Supportive community is vital; no man is an island, as they say. Nor is anyone else. We need that community, that neighborhood expression of care, when we're at our best and our worst.

Mental illness can be particularly isolating. For many people, one of the central messages of mental illness is that they are not worthy, they are alone, they are terrible, awful people who cannot be loved. If you've never felt it, I'm not sure I can actually describe how bone-crushingly bad that feels in a way that doesn't seem melodramatic.

And, you know, heaven forbid I be melodramatic, right?

That's how shame functions as well. It closes us off - we are afraid of how other people will react or we are reacting negatively ourselves, shaming ourselves. 

What the Siwe Project does, by empowering people to tell their stories, is to broaden the mental health narrative and tell people that they are not alone. It creates a community, a metaphorical neighborhood of care.

Yes, I am painfully earnest about these things sometimes. I can't help myself - I really do think it is transformative to realize that you are not alone.

If you do not have mental health issues, please respect the people in your life who do. You might not know who they are, but they are more than likely there. Some people have boundaries (unlike, say, me) and won't want to discuss specifics - if you could quell your curiosity in favor of accepting it might not be something that person wants to discuss, that would be an amazing expression of respect and care.

In fact, if you DO have mental health issues, that same thing applies.

The stats look like this: about one in four people with mental illness will experience violence against them in any given year. That's not great odds. The odds of violence against you go up based on public perception of your mental illness. And instead of being sympathetic, the public is usually more concerned that you are going to be the violent one.

I am going to keep having these conversations because that's the only way to break down the stigma associated with mental health issues. I'm going to keep listening when other people tell their stories, because there's no One True Experience when it comes to this stuff. We need a neighborhood expression of care. And we need to support other neighborhoods, too.

Yesterday was No Shame Day - but there isn't any day when we should be ashamed to talk about mental health.