I have been thinking about writing this article for quite some time: I want to address an issue that has only become more apparent to me with time and experience. In my Oct. 2 article about stigma I wrote, “...we are often not aware of the deeper lurking problems such as media portrayal and careless language.” This is one way of stating an issue that I like to refer to as collective mindfulness.
In this community, we are very aware that the media, capitalism and consumerism can lead to dangerous promotion of certain ideals and widespread circulation of stigmatizing information. Just look at the advertising industry, which in many different senses manipulates feelings of want or need. Certain images, identities, and ways of life are promoted or put down. We know such ideas set forth are bad, but we still somehow take part in their circulation -- it seems there is no escape when harmful ideas (such as binary-enforcing and misogynistic gender roles) are inextricably woven into culture. But here’s the catch: just because the media shows it, just because the corporations sell it, just because you didn’t know any better doesn’t mean that this thought pattern isn’t harmful. We hear this kind of language in discussions of microaggression in other social justice areas. Unfortunately, ignorance does not factor in to whether your words and actions may cause damage. What you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you.
Again, I find myself running into an idea I’ve already referenced in other articles. You never know what someone is currently going through or has experienced. It takes seconds and a small amount of effort to be mindful, to think critically about the kinds of things you say and do, while it may take an enormous amount of time and willpower for a person to recover from a trigger. (Another issue I brought up in that Oct. 2 article!) Many people in recovery from trauma, addiction and eating disorders, to name a few examples, are bombarded with triggers everywhere. As a college community that seems to be committed to making groups of people and individuals feel as safe as possible, we do consider the effect our campus culture has on people. However, the problem persists. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that preventative measures are explicitly taken in most areas, but generally people do not tend to knowingly add to the problem. By being passive, even inadvertently, you allow, even encourage, a violent system to persist.
Perhaps taking measures to be mindful of those who might need you to is inconvenient, but this concept applies to mindfulness of any difference. People who are different do not exist to inconvenience you, and by the same token, your life isn’t about them. I’m not advocating for what people often attack as “overly-politically-correctness” to the point of censorship. Some language and topics make people uncomfortable, but there is a monumental difference between discomfort and danger. A theme that comes up often in Scripps discussions in and out of class is identity. My perception (and personal belief) is that assigning an identity to a person, or in any way attacking or trivializing a person’s self-defined identity, is violent. This extends to mental health. Would you think the same way about issues of race or gender? If your language makes people feel attacked based on some part of their identities, wouldn’t you want to change it?
Mental health isn’t about “feelings;” depression isn’t about being “sad;” addiction isn’t as simple as “wanting” or “needing” something. In recovery, people have to try to change their integrated thought patterns and tendencies, which become somewhat automatic and involuntary,which becomes threatening in recovery, as even certain thoughts themselves act as triggers and continue this cycle. And this runs much deeper than “feelings” or just “habits.” People who experience certain things may not appreciate being branded as a single aspect of their life or as a victim, either. Your words matter.
Being mindful extends beyond the obvious ideas of not using certain words such as “insane” as a casual descriptor, not incorrectly applying terms (“I am so OCD! My notes have to be so neat”) and not joking about serious matters such as sexual assault or suicide. College culture is ripe with triggers that seem commonplace and harmless to most people. Consider eating disorders and disordered eating recovery-- just think for a minute about where those triggers may be. People recovering are subjected to so much adverse information on not only a daily, but an hourly basis. Examples include the ever-present discussion of weight and appearance, use of “fat” constantly, negatively and derisively, talk of having to make up for eating a certain thing or earning the right to eat it, obsessions with dieting and exercise, etc. These are only a few examples, and everyone is different, which brings me to an important point.
You cannot cover everything; there is no way to possibly know everyone’s triggers and avoid them. “So why bother?” you may ask. This is a common argument I have seen, but you can apply it to many other areas-- if you can’t prevent all murder, what’s the point of trying? To this, I ask, when did individual people’s peace of mind become insignificant? And being mindful covers many of the more common triggers, so why sacrifice collective mindfulness as prevention altogether based on the cases that can’t always be reached?
You’ll find that individuals tend to matter more when you think about them as separate people rather than as an entity in some vague, amorphous “other” group. If a friend is grieving over a loved one’s death, you certainly would try to be more sensitive. You probably wouldn’t shame a victim of a shooting for being triggered by kids playing with Nerf guns. So, what makes other triggers different? Why are some triggers brushed off and trivialized, especially in relation to other factors such as gender and race? You don’t need to know the feeling or fully be able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. Respect the fact that everyone is different –not weaker-- and that there are some things that are pretty damn scary that you might not understand.
Call it “sensitive.” I dare you.