Leap of Faith: Destigmatizing Mental Health

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My name is Zoey; I am a woman, from the US, dislike cilantro, am able-bodied, white, queer, love ice cream and Foucault. These categorizations and labels could go on and on. While you would learn a great deal about me, you would also know nothing at all. Humans often try to understand—and predict—the world via categorizing everything into boxes. And yet, there is incredible variation within any—even rigorously, narrowly defined—category-group (e.g., intra-group variation). Such variation may not negate the integrity of the grouping, but raises questions about the utility of categorization and threatens our need for, and comfort we attain from, such sorting.

Difference can be scary. It can feel like a void: difficult to bridge, a chasm across which it is impossible to create understanding, or perhaps to attain it. Instead, can we venture to value the gulfs between each other?

Clarification: I am not promoting that sappy, false bridging of difference that oft accompanies subtle discrimination/violence against a less powerful party. (For example, attempted school integration in mid-20th century US.) Instead, I am curious how, on a micro-level, we can be inspired rather than defeated by the variance in our communities. Might we be able to care better for each other and ourselves if we embraced the rifts and failures of understanding between us, rather than letting divisions drive us away from that endeavor—and each other?

An old axiom states that humans are scared of difference; might this actually be fear of the unknown? Recoiling from the unknown can keep us safe. It also isolates us from each other, discourages exploration, and feeds social divisions and biases. Feeling unlike, as though you cannot understand, and not knowing how to connect across and around difference can be a disorienting, scary experience. We think: if we fail to (sufficiently) connect with others (and ourselves?), what do we have?

Fear engenders stigma, in turn prompting us to withdraw from anything mysterious. Notice: there is less stigma associated with physical unwellness than with psychological distress and mental illness. Thinking of the body as a machine, we make physical ill/wellness orderly; knowing it, we can fix it. We hold no such (illusion of?) clarity about the brain, mental states and experiences, and feelings. Affect (emotions) is a mystery, and in many cases feelings are dismissed as frivolous, superfluous, and unimportant. At worst, feeling is considered weak. This is particularly true for people expected to be masculine. Affect is relegated to a second-class field, a region that—in a strikingly strategic move by that bully Sexism—is reserved for feminine individuals. We associate femininity with emotions, and classify both as secondary, lesser, weak(er). Men (or people expected to be) who transgress masculinity to adopt what are considered femme characteristics are maligned because femininity is a step down—and it *seems* absurd to give up the privileges of masculinity. (According to sexist biases.) The end result is that everyone, particularly masculine folks, are incentivized to avoid all contact with, or manifestation of, ‘feminine’ characteristics and realms. In the context of mental health, this often means fewer people express distress or seek help.

We associate femininity with emotions, and classify both as secondary, lesser, weak(er). Men (or people expected to be) who transgress masculinity to adopt what are considered femme characteristics are maligned because femininity is a step down—and it *seems* absurd to give up the privileges of masculinity. In the context of mental health, this often means fewer people express distress or seek help.

Is it wariness of the unknown that leads us to disavow the importance of emotions and to see mental illness and psychological pain as weak and dishonorable, rather than simply human? (Indeed, it is in the ‘femme fatal’—that mysterious, dangerous, and for once powerful and therefore threatening femme figure—that we see the embodied intersection of wariness of the unknown, the stigmas of strong emotion and femininity, and sexuality taboos.) While psychology and neuroscience make enormous strides in understanding how brains work, psychological states are varied, changeable, and fluid. We often struggle to understand exactly what we are feeling, and why. It is unsurprising that we flee from the feat of understanding ourselves. The subsequent challenge—caring for ourselves and each other—is equally daunting. Perhaps we see emotions as weak because we lack full understanding of psychological processes and thus experience and comprehension of emotions are largely out of our control. We are along for the ride. (Try to enjoy it?)

Pause for a moment. We cannot escape our brains—although there are many, largely unhealthy, ways that people try. What if we set aside our fear and embrace this chasm of understanding and control? Let’s appreciate this mystery of affect. Let’s acknowledge fear, love, sadness, confusion, grief, delight as natural feelings that flow through us and that play crucial roles helping us understand and relate to the world—and to each other.

Except—social institutionalization of mental health/illness-stigma prevents this. Consider the potential we would unleash to pursue psychological healing if we ceased to constantly shame ourselves for struggling with emotions and psychological states we designate ‘weak.’ Institutionalized stigma extends into our healthcare infrastructure also; psychological care is less common and more stigmatized than physical healthcare, and discussing mental health can be taboo in many contexts.

We are stuck in a vicious circle. Nervous about broaching the topics of mental health, mental illness, and sometimes of intense or unpleasant emotions generally, we further proscribe discussion of these topics and the challenges that we all face. We are never taught how to discuss psychological distress, so merely broaching the subject is itself an unknown. We are stuck in this tornado, a cycle in which discomfort with the topic of mental distress, lack of education around mental health issues and the ensuing feelings of helplessness in facing them interweave, forming a monstrous topic none of us know how to approach.

We are never taught how to discuss psychological distress, so merely broaching the subject is itself an unknown.

I cannot blame us. Psychological states and emotions are complex and varied. They are hard to understand; it can be even harder to determine how to assist others with their mental health issues when our individual experiences, histories, and healing processes are so varied.

Please, though: let’s not be afraid to ask. Do not be afraid to jump across that chasm of the ‘socially acceptable’ and voids of mutual experience and understanding. Let’s be audacious in our quest to care for ourselves and others. Few things are more vulnerable than discussing mental and emotional pain and traumatic experiences. Let us create more safe(r) spaces. Let us make it OK to ask about, to talk about, to seek professional counseling regarding mental health.

I challenge you to make a leap of faith. Take a risk. Do not skirt topics of mental health, mental health medications or counseling. Instead, allow these to enter your conversations. Through subtle gestures, begin to communicate to those around you that the vulnerable territory of discussing struggles, distress, and discomfort is an OK place to tread, that you will go there with them, listen, be empathetic, and not judge them as weak, or ‘mad,’ but instead recognize that it takes immense courage and persistence to vocalize and address mental health issues.

Willingness to discuss these topics is the first step.

I hope to do this further in subsequent posts. From summer 2014-summer 2015, under the auspices of a Fulbright-Nehru research grant, I lived in several cities in India, studying mental health of/in LGBTIAKH+/queer individuals and communities. (I should here be clear that any views I express do not reflect the views of, and are not tied to, the Fulbright program.) I interviewed community members and activists, and participated in community groups. I occupied the uneasy limbo of being an observer/researcher and, in a way, community member… and soon friend of some. I also interviewed a range of mental health professionals (MHPs) to explore their understandings of and perspectives on LGBT+/queer identities and experiences. Certainly, I was an outsider; there are things I missed and did not understand. My interpretations of what I saw, experienced, and heard are influenced by my past and identities—some of which I discussed at the beginning. I will always struggle with what a friend called my “colonial angst.” Nonetheless, in subsequent posts I would like to offer some observations from my year of research and subsequent year (2015-2016) of watching from afar, via the internet. Please do contact me with thoughts, criticism, questions—anything!

Let’s talk about this. Let’s dare to love and caretake ourselves in doing so.

Zoey

Zoey

Zoey is an always-attempting-to-be inclusive feminist, anthropologist empath, malcontent with a penchant for Foucault and ice cream who is inspired and intrigued by the word 'outre,' and the acts, attitudes, and affects it might inspire. She earned her B.A. from Pitzer College in "Psychology, gender, and sexuality in social contexts." Zoey hopes to continue research into mental health of LGBT+/queer individuals and communities in India, which she began through a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship in 2014-15.
Zoey