CN: Long post, World Mental Health Day, Mental illness Vs physical illness, Discussion of problematic disability narratives
It’s really great to see so many posts, campaigns, and events for World Mental Health Day, and as someone who’s struggled with mental health for a long time it’s so wonderful to have seen a culture shift in the past few years to be more widely supportive and understanding of the legitimacy and difficulty of mental illness.
However, I think today should also be a time to think about the ways we do talk about mental health and mental illness, and some of the problems with it.
One such problem is that when we talk about “Mental Health” we are almost always talking about anxiety and depression, and while these are very common problems that deserve attention, care, and funding, they do not make up the entirety of mental health.
Cambridge graduate Emma Simkin wrote an excellent piece about this for Blueprint mazgine, discussing how mental health issues that involve psychosis are almost always forgotten despite their prevalence, with roughly 3% of the population experiencing psychosis at some point in their life time: https://blueprintzine.com/portfolio/mental-illness-exists-beyond-depression-and-anxiety-why-dont-we-talk-about-it/
What this article emphasises is that while it’s not helpful to talk about some mental illnesses as being “worse” than others, and that all mental health comes with stigma, because other kinds of mental health “haven’t had such a boost in public understanding, consequently, they haven’t had the boost in public sympathy”.
Times like World Mental Health Day are opportunities for us to examine what we talk about when we talk about mental health, rather than reproducing the same support we offer year round and ignoring any issues it may have.
Another point that Emma raises in her article is that “When more ‘acceptable’ disorders dominate discussions of mental health, other disorders are left to slip through the gaps.” What kinds of disability are “acceptable” very much plays into societal ideas about what kind of disability we view as valid illness, and what we view as scrounging or lying- as if disability benefits are anything to write home about.
The oppositional nature of some disabilities versus others was raised by NUS Disabled Students’ Officer Rachel O’Brien in a brilliant tweet this morning:
regular reminder on #WMHD17 that mental health does not want parity with physical disability because we’re being treated like shit too.(https://twitter.com/RachelJ_OBrien/status/917664328328908800)
Moments after seeing this tweet, I saw a tweet doing exactly this kind of thing. The caption being “If physical illness was treated like mental illness” and the attached image was a comic of people with “physical illness” being told that they should just “get over it” or “try a new frame of mind”, despite being pictured with bleeding wounds or being hooked up to IV drips.
I wrote a brief and angry thread about this on twitter (https://twitter.com/CUSU_Disabled/status/917673626949816320), as this kind of mental health activism always operates from the position that mental health issues are somehow seen as less legitimate than physical disability.
While there is still stigma around mental health issues (and while we are living under a government whose solution to widespread mental health issues is cuts and “resilience”) it’s incorrect to assume that those with physical disabilities don’t also experience shocking levels of interpersonal and institutional disableism.
The comic in question conflates physical illness (flu & food poisoning) with physical disability, and while physical disability itself is not a unified category, disabled people who use mobility aids like crutches and wheelchairs very frequently DO receive the kind of abuse and ignorance that comics like this paint as ridiculous.
Wheelchair users, especially young wheelchair users, are told to get up and walk, or that they’re being lazy, and so this kind of comparison is just not helpful to anyone, as it throws physically disabled people under the bus by using a false idea of their experience to make a point that most people would agree with anyway.
Rachel O’Brien also posted an excellent article today about how we as a movement are much stronger if we do not divide ourselves along the categories of our disabilities:
All too often we split our movement up into categories of disability or by impairment type, and whilst it can be good to chat to people with whom we share an impairment with about the barriers we share, in order to have a strong and cohesive disability movement we need to be organising in pan-impairment groups.
Days like today are useful for thinking about how we can improve mental health activism beyond “puppy rooms and smoothies”, and thinking about the progress that still must be made in our societal and institutional treatment of mental illness. However, we must also consider that mental illness is not an isolated issue, and while it is true that “everyone has mental health”, disabled people with other disabilities outside mental health also often have mental health issues from the trauma of existing in a disableist society, and we cannot forget about this if our activism is to be effective and relevant.