An honest conversation about mental illness : end the stigma

By Aidan Harley '16Editor-in-Chief 

As a student and ally at a liberal arts college known for its liberal leanings, I hear and learn a lot about people’s identities. I try my best as a white and straight ally to correct people when they say or do something insensitive and also educate myself about the systematic ways in which people are denied expression of their identities and rights and privileges. And the majority of people that I interact with here at Scripps are really open talk to these ideas and try their best at understanding what it is like to live in another person’s shoes. But one realm of identity that I never hear anyone openly about or try to understand is mental illness.

A quarter to a third of people in the world will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime, yet there are still some states in the U.S. that don’t have laws requiring insurance companies to cover treatment for mental illnesses. People feel the need to hide their mental illnesses from employers and friends because people will treat them as incapable or volatile, or because their jobs will be in jeopardy. One of the first discourses that pops up whenever there is a multi-victim shooting incident is how to get guns out of the hands of mentally ill individuals, even though it has been proven that mentally ill people are no more likely to commit acts of violence than people without mental illness. People classify others with mental illnesses as lazy, violent, crazy, evil, etc. because they don’t understand how mental illness works. Others who are a bit more informed are still guilty of looking down on those with mental illness, distancing themselves from those who are mentally ill because they are “unstable,” and discounting the toll mental illness takes on the individuals it affects. This stigma associated with mental illness is incredibly harmful because not only does it work to demonize those with mental illness, it also belittles their suffering, which work in tandem to prevent and discourage people from seeking treatment.

Scripps and the 5Cs, usually spaces that are critical of discourses that alienate and subjugate groups of people, are just as complicit as many other mainstream spaces in the perpetuation of the demonization/discounting discourse. As someone diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, and an eating disorder, I in no way feel supported by the 5C or Scripps community. While I have encountered specific people who have been helpful and supportive, the culture of this school and the discussions I hear around me in no way indicate the community is willing to try and understand the complexities of these disorders. I hear people talk all the time about how one just needs to look at beauty of the world, cheer up, do XYZ and be grateful in order to be happy. My happiness depends on my levels of brain chemicals like serotonin, the health of my neurotransmitters, and genetics, not whether I am being reflective enough. This is offensive because I can’t help that I feel depressed. Am I grateful for all the wonderful things I have in my life and the awesome experiences I get to have? Yeah, I am. Am I often awe-struck at the beautiful things that I encounter? Hell, yeah. Does that change that fact that sometimes I want to stop existing and can’t find a reason to get out of bed in the morning? No, it doesn’t. When I hear things like this, I never feel like I can disclose to people what goes on for me because their solution to my problems will be to “cheer up.” You should know that if I could just “cheer up,” I would have tried that by now.

As a person with an eating disorder on the Scripps’ campus in general, not only do I feel unsupported in the disclosure of my diagnosis, I am constantly battling situations and images that encourage eating disorder behavior. I hear students all the time saying they didn’t have lunch today because they didn’t have enough time. I hear them talk about depriving themselves of sleep, food, bathroom breaks, and other bodily functions, all in the name of school work. The nature of eating disorders is often one that encourages the affected person they are not worth the basic function of eating. I constantly have to tune my classmates out when they talk like this. I am not saying the solution to my eating disorder is for others to stop talking to me like that. What I am saying is that Scripps culture is very skewed towards disordered eating and this is very toxic environment for people with eating disorders, those who are in recovery and those who have not sought treatment, as well as people who are not affected by mental illness at all.

At the Malott Commons, for the first part of the year I was greeted with posters urging me to “Get the skinny on fats” and aiming to teach me how to make “healthy choices.” While this can appear to most as innocuous, discourses about portion control and making “healthy choices” both at their core assume that some food is good and other food is bad, and it is good if you don’t eat a lot. This also relies on the assumption that skinny people are inherently good and healthy, and fat people are bad, lazy, and unhealthy. These are also ideas central to fat shaming.

Additionally, these discourses are at their core very sexist ones that encourage women to always be unsatisfied with how they look and critical of their food choices. Because of my disorder, I am hypersensitive to ways in which Scripps culture, which is usually pretty feminist, conforms to these mainstream ideas about “healthy eating.” A healthy relationship to food does not include core beliefs like the ones described above. If I was not so vigilant about keeping my eating disorder thoughts in check, I could easily talk about and engage in eating disorder behaviors on campus without any notice. I would go as far as to say that I would receive encouragement and praise from many of my classmates. This concerns me further because I wonder how many of my fellow classmates suffer from eating disorders, but their behaviors are so reinforced here on campus that their self hate, starvation, and meal skipping seem normal to them, and goes untreated.

Overall, I am disappointed at the lack of awareness that Scripps and the 5Cs have about mental illness. At a school that encourages sensitivity and pride about many other identities, I was surprised that this is an issue people know little to nothing about. Students here are not inclined to talk about mental illness, yet college is a time when stress and life changes reach their peak and can wreck havoc on many students’ mental well-being and mood. Additionally, a lot of serious mental illnesses don’t begin to show their faces until people are in their early 20s. This makes colleges the perfect place to deal with these issues, as they often have a higher proportion of people with undiagnosed mental illness because of these factors. Yet I see very little effort towards making the 5Cs mental-health friendly, encouragement of discourses counter to the demonization/discounting conversation the rest of the country has, or even conversations about how many people mental illness affects. When I disclose my diagnosis to others, I often hear that I don’t look like I have depression/an eating disorder/anxiety disorder. What are people with mental illness supposed to look like? They look more “normal” than you think. In fact, mental illness is more “normal” than everyone here seems to think. We need to stop pretending that this affects people in faraway places and start dealing with the reality that people with mental illness exist here, at Scripps, and at the 5Cs. I challenge the Scripps community to begin having an honest and productive conversation about mental illness, because we seriously need it.