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Affirmations and ablesplaining: Stanford’s mental health advocacy fails the mentally ill

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Note: This piece contains descriptions of severe mental illness and psychiatric stigma. 

Back in January, I received an email informing me that if I “believe[d] in de-stigmatizing [sic] mental health and illness,” I was “in luck.” Soon, “MENTAL HEALTH WEEK 2020!!!” would be upon us. There were “fun and relaxing breaks from winter quarter stress” to come, plus the chance “to foster conversation and learning about mental health and illness.”

I don’t doubt the good intentions of this initiative. Devoting a particular week to discussions of mental health creates room for members of the Stanford community to share personal experiences and reflect on challenges that are often ignored. Nevertheless, there’s a key problem with the execution of this advocacy: the goal of reducing the stigma of mental illness is fundamentally at odds with promises of fun, feel-good events. There’s nothing pleasant or relaxing about anti-stigma work. It requires addressing the painful hardships of severe mental disorders, including months spent in hospitals, repeated suicide attempts, misdiagnoses, incapacitating trauma, to name just a few. It also necessitates recognition that the term “mental illness” encapsulates a broad range of conditions that vary dramatically in severity and prognosis. Individuals with serious psychiatric disorders are disproportionately and catastrophically impacted by psychiatric stigma, facing unemployment, homelessness, incarceration and alienation from society. But despite the magnitude of these injustices, mental health campaigns tend to focus primarily on milder disorders or challenges that aren’t disorders at all, and Stanford is no exception. 

A quick glance at the flyer attached to the aforementioned email confirms that only two of the 20 events advertised were related to mental illness. Moreover, despite the numerous activities geared towards specific student groups (trans, Latinx, Black, etc.), none of the panels or workshops made any mention of disabled students, many of whom, by definition, are most affected by psychiatric disorders. Instead, the organizers of Mental Health Week chose to prioritize tea, affirmations, yogalates and even a petting zoo, while simultaneously asserting that these initiatives “can make real change in our community.” But the vast majority of these events don’t focus on mental illness or center the voices of the mentally ill. In other words, the people in charge of these events failed those who need them most — students like me.

I’ve lived with severe mental illness for about 11 years now. I’ve spent months in hospitals, been on over a dozen medications, accumulated diagnoses the way some people collect keychains, seen more professionals than I care to count. (Actually, I did try to count them once. I gave up after 30.) My moving onto campus at the beginning of freshman year was in and of itself a minor miracle. I’d just been discharged from more than 10 months straight in hospitals all across the Western half of the country. Over the course of middle school and high school, I’ve learned to dread conversations about mental health, which usually leave me even more frustrated and isolated than I was at the start. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had to listen to people ablesplain mental illnesses that they haven’t experienced, that I’ve lived with for years. More often than not, I can’t contradict them because I am literally unable to speak — as a result of the very illness about which they’re ostensibly educating me. These narratives are typically served with heaping sides of generic advice and sentimental platitudes: try to smile, write down what you’re grateful for, get some exercise, you’re not alone. But I kind of am alone. I’m grateful I’m not in a hospital or dead. Does that count? And if smiling and aerobic exercise were enough to make my problems disappear, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

I appreciate the effort that students have put into sharing their stories, but accounts of milder mental illness can quickly overshadow more serious struggles. When everyone is clamoring to speak up about this issue, there’s nobody left to listen. I’m also concerned by the lack of awareness of the realities of severe mental illness that’s evident throughout such stories. On The Well, a blog on student health run by BeWell Stanford, one article informs me that “increasing your happiness is shockingly simple.” I suppose this would have been nice to know before I had a magnetic current directed straight through my skull. Elsewhere on the blog, a student describes how a family member helped them through depression: “my younger sister looked me in the eyes and challenged me not to become someone who falls through the cracks.” While this may be an encouraging statement for some, it also implies that mental illness is a personal failure. In another video, a student declares that “friendship was the greatest treatment for my illness more than any pill could ever be.” To me, this sounds like an assumption that if I had better friendships, I wouldn’t need to be taking the medications that saved my life. The subtexts of these stories are tremendously harmful in the context of serious mental illness. They represent stigmatized attitudes and erroneous assumptions that fail to address and even worsen students’ real challenges.

This is why the words mental health awareness are enough to give me a panic attack. This is why I am literally sick of talking about mental illness with mentally healthy people. This is why when people say things like “there is help” and “everyone’s got something” and “our community cares,” I have trouble believing them.

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t struggle with the symptoms of mental illness on a day-to-day basis. The one week where Stanford’s community directs its attention to the sicknesses that, for me, are a full-time occupation, shouldn’t be the week where I feel most alone.

Contact Lucy Wallace  at lucyw00 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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