Honesty, Mental Illness, and Fighting Stigma

Friendship of Don Quixote, Octavio Ocampo

everal months ago, the feed for the massively popular Shit Academics Say, usually populated with teacher belly-aching, was interrupted by an intriguing article on the problem of mental illness in academia. In the article, author Jake Jackson suggests that those of us who comprise the academy must be open about our struggles with mental illness. Jackson suggests that we, like society at large, have a problem of silence, and that the cure for our problem is dialogue. The article can be read in its entirety here.

While I share Jackson’s ambition for productive dialogue on the question of mental illness, his desire for a “radical honesty” is troubling in two key ways. Jackson supposes first that mental illness is a personal problem or quirk that when revealed to the light of articulated day will vanish. He is not the only one to do this, and indeed, mental illness has in many ways become a meme to bind people together, dangerously obscuring the serious health concerns that come with mental illness. Jackson further rhetorically situates himself in opposition to a silent academia which I argue does not exist. We talk very much about mental illness, but we do not do so in an effective way partly because of that notion of mental illness as a personal characteristic. There are two prefatory notes I want to make before beginning. First, I admire Jackson’s work and ambition, and it is for this sole reason that I feel compelled to push its limits towards securing a true solution to the problem of mental illness in academia. Second, I do not speak on this issue as a scientist looking through a microscope. I once suffered significantly with mental illness and have since received curative treatment.

That compulsion I feel to defend my right to speak on mental illness certainly speaks to the scientific and academic way we often treat mental illness as Jackson suggests. I can speak to the nature of John Milton’s poetry because I have read it, and I may only speak to the nature of mental illness if those words are written on me. Yet that compulsion is rooted also in the assumption underneath Jackson’s argument that a radical honesty between people can fundamentally influence or aid the mental ill; that mental illness, diseases like any other, can be treated with the words of co-workers or friends. Jackson is coming from a desire to fight stigma, but the entire supposition of the piece rests on a stigmatic rendering of mental illness as existing only in a certain set of social circumstances rather than a chemical disease in our very fibers, passed down from generation to generation.

I don’t mean to suggest that mental illness is merely chemical. The internalized violence of late capitalism serves as a pathogen in the disease, as do the various circumstantial catalysts in our lives at any given point. But to suppose that talking to unprofessional people, your friends, office mates, and worst of all, the denizens of the internet, are effective curatives for mental illness is a fundamentally stigmatic position. It supposes that mental illness is indeed not an illness at all but a symptom that lives only in a certain set of socio-political circumstances, an idea suicide statistics have long debunked. Talking to the people around you about your health problems is something we demand of no other sufferer.We do not demand of a Crohn’s patient that they discourse with their office mates about their symptoms. We do not demand that a person suffering through the pains of Chemotherapy discuss the way they feel with those around them. We do not demand those things because they are, of course, insensitive, and more profoundly to the question at hand, ineffective. People suffering with health problems are always of course to be supported by those around them, but to discuss the subtleties of their health problem with inexperienced and unprofessional people is not a worthwhile endeavor. Because we have all been sad or nervous does not in the slightest mean we have the authority to speak on effective coping mechanisms or treatments for mental illness. Just as we would not speak to the medical problems exampled above, we needn’t serve as makeshift councilors while supposing to ourselves that we are fighting stigma. We are doing the opposite.

It is a long-standing tenet of dialectical behavioral therapy that journaling, a cognitive practice intimately tied to the use of social media, is often ineffective if not very specifically guided and this is a further wrinkle in Jackson’s reasoning of dialogue as curative. Ineffective journaling can lead to wallowing, or a confirmation of symptoms that impedes a greater understanding of the disease. Like in a journal, when we are “radically honest” with people not trained in discoursing with the mentally ill, sufferers will often merely pat down further the mental paths that lead to the reproduction of symptoms. This self-confirmation of symptoms under the guise of fighting stigma can be found all over the internet. We’ve all seen countless listicles to the effect of “What to Say to Your Friend with _________” or “10 Things Everyone With _________ Will Understand” (example). These kinds of articles, while admirably trying to fight stigma, only reinforce it. Your friend with depression should be treated like a human being with a health problem that does not define him or her. People should seek treatment until they no longer experience the 10 things listed in an obnoxious manner on Buzzfeed. This understanding of mental illness as little more than a meme to share with your friends with a smile and a nod is enough, as William Lloyd Garrison once wrote angrily, “to make every statue leap from its pedestal” (source). Over 40,000 people died in the United States this year from suicide. This is a human crisis in urgent need of remedy, not a passive quality to observe in yourself and others in self-replicating discourse. Jackson summarizes this dynamic effectively, maddeningly asserting that his depression makes him a more “prolific writer.” Can you imagine someone stating in earnest that their chronic asthma gave them more time to write?

Thus Jackson’s assertion that a radical honesty is needed to fight mental illness in academia is rooted in several extremely negative and anti-scientific assumptions on the nature of mental illness. Indeed, when we talk to unprofessional people we will often make our mental illness worse by confirming our symptoms with fellow sufferers. Jackson situates himself rhetorically by supposing that academia shares the stigmatic silence of society at large on the question of mental illness. From my personal experience, and from the socially anxious conversations over chewy bagels and cheap coffee at academic conferences across the country, I do not think we have a silence problem on the question of mental illness in academia. Rather, we have an ineffective dialogue problem.

Gerrard Winstanley wrote heatedly in 1649 that, “words are nothing…action is the life of all,” and this is the real problem with mental illness in academia. It is not silence that plagues us but inaction. Every semester I assign a personal essay as the first assignment in my composition classes. Every semester, I get a few that at times graphically detail problems with self-injury and suicide. Every time I ask those students in conferences if they are alright and if they have sought out treatment. Every time, they act like that is a stupid question. Similarly, I have talked at great length with colleagues about their struggles with mental illness openly in our dilapidated through populated TA offices. When the discussion turns towards actions, therapy and medication, the problem is shrugged off as not that serious or my colleague is abashed to admit they already take medication. This is not a problem of dialogue but a problem of the way we understand mental illness. We discuss our problems well, at least in my experience with English departments (discussing is what we do for a meager living), but we demure from action. We demure, I think, because mental illness is classified as something that we talk about and not fix. It is not a deadly disease but a transitive personality state that will eventually evaporate if given enough dialogic light. When we are sick, we rush to the doctor before further damage accrues. When we suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar, borderline, etc.,  we…talk to the guy next to us or race to facebook? The variables in mental illness may be complex, but the solutions are scientifically tested and effective. It is imperative that those of us in academia stop acting like mental illness is a contentious passage in Paradise Lost that can be reasoned through with dialogue, and understand that it is a serious, life-threatening health problem that demands medical treatment.

Jackson’s textual aim is noble but his methods are scarred by the stigma that surrounds the mentally ill. Truly fighting stigma demands that we encourage sufferers towards professional help, and reinforce an understanding that this help is functionally not different from going to the doctor for any other health problem. We cannot fight stigma by encouraging the mentally ill to talk to each other or their inexperienced coworkers when they need real, professional help. I believe in hope, in being cured, in having self-control over the chemical impulses that drag your mood up and down. Because I believe in these things, I encourage those around me who suffer from mental illness to seek medical help and abandon notions of mental illness as a passive trait that can be solved by openness and dialogue. We don’t need radical honesty about our health problems between each other, we need radical access to healthcare and a willingness to encourage those around us to seek that help which we cannot provide. Those of us in academia carry so many personal and political burdens, and the burden of addressing the problem of mental illness in our society musn’t fall to just us and our dialogues, but to the institutions of healthcare and social welfare in our society. Defending those institutions is a task for the radically honest, anti-stigma academic. And it is a task with ever-increasing importance.

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