Like many people, I am shocked and saddened by the suicide of Robin Williams. His suicide has fortunately or unfortunately been a catalyst for many conversations and articles about mental illness. While I am glad that mental illness is being discussed in a mostly honest and respectful way, I find most of the discussions to be somewhat lacking, despite the fact that they are also very refreshing. Confused by my reactions, I am using this post to explore the thoughts behind my feeling that the current discussion of mental illness is not enough. I am not dismissing the necessity of addressing the stigma that surrounds mental illness and/or suicide I believe that addressing this stigma can and will save lives. However, I also believe that we must expand the current conversation on mental illness and suicide to include the topics of oppression, structural violence and discrimination. I believe that any other discussion on mental illness without addressing the impact of these social forces on illnesses like depression, and access to treatment, may become superficial and privileged. After all, mental illness, like everything else in the world, does not exist within a vacuum.
As always, I will use my own experience to exemplify and further explore my claims. For example, I am a queer, white, physically disabled woman. My identity, as well as my privilege shape my experience of mental illness every day. First, micro-aggressions, discrimination and internalized shame have fueled, at various times, feelings of insecurity, hopelessness, and depression. When I was 13, I was suicidal due mostly to how I processed the shame that I internalized about my disablity. Even my very first encounter with the mental health system, was rooted in both my early reactions to ableism, (My mother took me to a therapist as a child to help me accept my disability), and being the recipient of privilege that afforded me access to therapeutic care.
Furthermore, despite my privilege, the marginalized parts of my identity can also negatively affect my access to safe mental health treatment. In the past, I have received therapy from some ableist, sexist, and/or homophobic men. From ages 13-16 I had a therapist who was openly homophobic and who encouraged me to come to the sessions wearing make up, so if I ran into his male patients, I would look pretty. As I grew older, I was often confused about our therapy sessions and at times felt victimized. Then, at age 16, I came out as bisexual to a new therapist He dismissed my sexuality by simply responding 'no you're not' and moving on. He was the first person that I came out to. Finally, I had a therapist in 2011 who was convinced that my episode of depression was caused exclusively by the fact that I was living with CP. He refused to believe that my disability was no longer an issue of emotional distress for me and wouldn't address any other areas of my life. I was left feeling resentful and silenced, and could not, at the time, get another therapist. I believe that if I was a straight, able bodied, male, my experience in the mental health system would have been very different and even safer. Mental illness, therefore, must be discussed in the same way that we discuss gender, race, sexuality and class, as it is affected by all of these factors, and like them, it is often an embodied and complex experience/ identity.
I urge people to think about mental illness on a level that is deeper than just talking about the diseases, or on a level that is deeper than how Robin Williams may have experienced it. We have to ask ourselves why the dominant conversations around mental illness are led by the dominant group and how we as individuals are playing a part in this biased and privileged system. We have to even look at and discuss the way oppression affects how people with mental illness are treated in the disability community and also why many people mental illness refuse to identify as being disabled. We have to wonder why there aren't mandatory trainings on undoing the isms in every mental health curriculum and why it seems that most mental health treatment is designed specifically for white, upper class, able bodied, straight men. Why are we talking about mental illness without also talking about how mental health is a privilege? Everything is interconnected. Let's use this awareness to start solving the problems in the mental health system. Everyone should at the very least get a chance to explore options other than suicide. I have depression, and I may always struggle with it, but it is more than just a chemical imbalance, in many ways, it may be the way my brain reacts to societal imbalances. Nothing exists in a vacuum.