This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.
So many of us walk the tightrope day by day.
One day soon it might just all go wrong – a friend too many dies, or we lose a job we liked, or the credit card maxxes out on us. Depression – if you have it – is always there a bit, but sometimes it kicks in when bad things happen.
That’s the way it’s been with me. There was a patch a few years ago when I found myself getting off buses in the middle of a journey to go sit on steps in the city and cry, but after a while that stopped.
Or it might just be the weather in our head – today is shiny, but tomorrow who knows?
A lot of people live with varying degrees of clinical depression, and about two thirds of those are women. Many people live with OCD, or are bipolar, or have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. There’s nothing to stop anyone having more than one mental illness. Entirely separate from all of that, there are all the people who are not neurotypical, whose wiring is a bit different; there’s nothing to stop any of them being depressed or whatever as well.
So many of us have bad days, or weeks, or months. And they’re not made better by people being clueless about it who ought to know better. The only reason why I don’t complain more about the failings of the Left, the women’s movement, and the LGBT community on mental health is that mainstream society is amazingly even worse.
Most of us lie about our state of mind all the time because we don’t want people to know. Less than perfect mental health is still a stigma, even if we are less liable to be locked up for it and forced into treatment. It means that anything we say or create will be treated as less valuable, less likely to be true.
We try to pass, we use the language that hurts us, and we try not to let people see us wince when we say someone else is ‘crazy’. It’s very hard not to do it, partly because we are trying to pass and partly because the language we grew up with has so many value judgements implicit in it; sanity is one of the things it assumes to be good, and less than perfect sanity to be bad.
No one has to tell other people that they have a problem and in fact, the way society is constructed, it’s probably sensible only to admit to depression when it gets so bad that you can’t function, or when the drugs you are already taking for it stop working and you have to find something else that works. Still, there’s something quite liberating about owning up to the identity.
Part of being depressed is a sense of never being good enough; it’s like impostor syndrome except that you’re faking it every day about everything, not just having nightmares about exams or making deadlines. At least if you tell other people, if you tell yourself, that that’s just the depression speaking and not the truth, you can start to accept that actually you’re not as bad as all that.
It’s like all the other identities that it’s sensible to hide in a society that quite likes us to lie; to not raise issues that make it harder for the majority to think well of themselves. If we can function, some people say, why can’t we just not mention private issues like mental health? Just like they used to say about sexuality, or like they still say about gender identity issues.
Do we have to flaunt our depression or our OCD, wear it like a badge of honour? They say. And sometimes it’s the sane being irritable and sometimes it’s other people worrying that if they are too sympathetic, the sane people might notice them. Most of the time it is not conscious bullying; it’s just people coasting along with the way things are, and not noticing the privilege that gives them, for the time being.
Most of the time I personally function pretty well – I write books and I write poems and I write articles. I don’t think that ‘coping privilege’ is actually a thing but I can understand how some people think it might be, and even use it as a stick with which to beat people who acknowledge poor mental health but somehow manage to get things done in spite of it.
They’re not inside my head, and they don’t know how hard it is for me, a lot of the time – but then, maybe it is harder for them, and I have no idea just how much harder. Worrying that I have coping privilege is just something else for my anxieties to focus on.
But what is common, and unforgivable, is for people in progressive communities to bully people over their mental health, in a way they never would about race, class, sexuality, gender identity or visible disability (though actually progressives can be pretty shit about that when you point out that their shiny new office has terrible mobility access – even in 2014…) I’ve seen a progressive organisation decide someone was guilty of an expellable offence because he had declared his mental health status and suddenly his guilt could be assumed without motive or opportunity – because his alleged crimes no longer had to make sense.
I’ve also seen it happen online to a number of women who have spoken publicly about their struggles with various mental health conditions. I’ve avoided giving specific examples here because they’d either be uselessly vague or else instantly recognisable to an extent that would be abusively intrusive.
If you know someone has depression, or whatever else, it might not be a good idea to tell them that their ideas are rubbish, that their behaviour is contemptible. Particularly if you are exaggerating, or angry, or just disagreeing with them – because the trouble is, their illness will probably go along with whatever you say.
Telling someone who has depression that they are worthless is an exploitation of the advantage better mental health gives you. It’s an exercise of privilege and it is potentially an act of violence. You are risking precipitating a spiral of self-hatred and self-harm.
Mental health is an area of intersectional oppression, like many others; don’t knowingly harm people. You’re probably doing it anyway but you can at least try not to – it’s just a matter of thinking about it. I used not to but, since my own really bad time, I have at least made the effort.
Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.
For more information and support on depression, or any other mental health condition please visit the Mental Health Foundation or Mind. For advice on staying mentally healthy online, see our article Eight ways to keep yourself sane on Twitter, by psychiatrist Anna Fryer.
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