When BlogHer asked me to speak at their annual conference on a panel called Mental Health in the Online Space, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. For one thing, I’ve never spoken at a conference before, and for another, I’m hardly a professional when it comes to talking about mental health. I mean, sure, I have lots of thoughts and opinions and feelings about it, and I feel pretty comfortable writing about my own experiences, but I’m by no means an expert. In fact, when I first received the invitation to speak I was sure that BlogHer had sent it to me by mistake. But it turned out not to be a mistake, which is how I found myself sitting in a fancy conference room in a fancy hotel in fancy ol’ Chicago talking about whacky brain things.
The whole thing went pretty smoothly; a lot of it felt like we were preaching to the choir, to be honest. Our audience was mostly made up of people who had either had their own mental health struggles or else had experience with mental illness through their friends and family. Most of what we said was met with sympathetic nods or else comments from people who wanted to share similar issues that they’d experienced. About halfway through the session, though, just as I was starting to settle in and feel like I was getting the hang of things, one question caught me by surprise.
One of the panelists had mentioned that she hadn’t told her employer why, exactly, she was speaking at BlogHer, because she hadn’t wanted to divulge her mental health history. This is a pretty common dilemma faced by most people who live with mental illnesses, so I didn’t think anything of it until a hand shot up in the audience.
“I don’t have a mental illness, so I’m sorry if this is offensive,” said the woman, “but you’ve all talked a lot about stigma and, well, if you don’t tell your employer that you’re mentally ill, aren’t you contributing to that stigma?”
At that moment, we all looked at each other, and I could tell that all of us were thinking the same thing:
Ohhhhhh, she doesn’t know.
She doesn’t know that when you tell someone that you’re mentally ill, they look at you differently. When you tell your boss that you’ve struggled with your mental health, they start to treat you like something other, something lesser. Instead of your usual assignments or tasks, you might be asked to take on something a little more boring, more mundane. When you want to know why your role has changed, your boss might tell you that they were concerned that your former duties were too stressful for you. When you try to explain that, no, it’s not like that, you might get a look that’s a cross between father-knows-best and we’re-just-looking-out-for-you.
She doesn’t know that even if you do divulge your status as mentally ill, that doesn’t mean that you can talk about it, casually, as if it’s just another illness. For example, when someone at work asks you how you’re doing, you can never just reply, oh, you know, sad and a little anxious. If you have to take the day off because you woke up to a panic attack and you feel as if the grim, grey sky might crush you if you move from your bed, you can’t tell your employer the real reason why you won’t be at work; instead, you have to fake a convincing cough or else invent disgusting details about a fictional stomach flu.
She doesn’t know that when people talk about mental health in their workplaces, they run the risk of getting fired. Oh, not fired specifically because of mental illness, because that’s illegal, but fired for one of any number of trumped up reasons that their employer might come up with. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired for taking too much time off for doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, even if those things are necessary in order for them to function. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired while they’re on a leave of absence due to anxiety or depression just because they’ve posted pictures of themselves smiling on Facebook.
I wish I was making that last one up, but I’m not.
Most of all, what this audience member doesn’t know about is the stigma; stigma felt by everyone, your friends, your family, your doctor, and even you, yourself, the mental health advocate. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have to learn as much about your illness as you can because your doctor’s understanding of it is, at best, incomplete. She doesn’t know what it’s like to go to see a psychiatrist, one of the best in his field, and, after you’ve explained your history to him, none of which has been in any way violent, harmful or neglectful towards others, have him ask if Children’s Aid has ever been involved with your family. She doesn’t understand that those of us who struggle with mental health issues grew up in the same world as everyone else, and we absorbed all the same toxic messages about mental illness that everyone else did. She doesn’t know about how we internalize that stigma, how we have to fight against our own shame, guilt, fear and doubt in order to love ourselves or even just take ourselves seriously.
She doesn’t know about how some of us hate ourselves for these things that are not our fault, and then feel like hypocrites for hating the very things that we’re trying to educate others about.
And that’s the key, isn’t it? Education, I mean. That’s the way to end the stigma and shame and fear. I know that, other mental health advocates know that, and even that woman in the audience knows that – which is why she was asking about how my co-panelist could hide her mental health issues from her employer rather than taking the time to educate them. The fact is that education about mental illness is incredibly important. But (and this is a big but) you can’t put all of the responsibility for educating others solely on the shoulders of mental health advocates. For one thing, it can be exhausting and emotionally draining to try to explain over and over again the particulars of brain chemistry and trauma and he ways that those things can shape your life. For another, being one hundred percent open about your mental health all of the time can, as mentioned above, have real-life consequences. And yeah, in a perfect world you could be like, fuck this job if they’re going to look down on me for an actual, bonafide illness, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes you have to take what you can get just so that you can pay the bills.
Education about mental illness needs to start earlier for everyone, and it needs to come from the top down. It should be included in grade school health classes, in curriculums designed, in part, by mental health advocates. Education needs to come from doctors, who need to be properly educated themselves about all the ins and outs of the sad, lonely world so many of us find ourselves in. Education needs to be everywhere and be accessible to everyone in the community, because that’s honestly the only way we’re ever going to get to a place where someone can casually say at a dinner party, oh man, I had a manic episode yesterday and coming down sucked but I feel way better now, without everyone else giving them the side eye.
Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty down with living in that world.