Surprising no one, I’m changing my game plan for this post.
I had planned on writing a post looking back on 2014, the things I learned about myself, how I changed my outlook, the negative things I needed to deal with, and the ways I and others made my life better.
However, I’m scratching that post because today, I’m going to rant.
While in an upper level English class, we were discussing the book Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (a wonderful book that I would definitely recommend) and we came to the arc of a certain character, Nyasha. Our professor asked the class how we felt about her.
“I really liked her until the last chapter of the book.”
I paused in my notes and looked up, slightly confused. Throughout Nervous Conditions, Nyasha had been a hardworking, independent character. She was spectacularly written, a realistic, relatable young woman who refuses to accept the patriarchal civilization in which she and her family live. She continues to be this woman all through to the end of the novel. The only thing that changes in the last chapter is that she suffers a mental and emotional breakdown.
“I really liked her and how much effort she put into her education, and then she just threw it away at the end! It was so disappointing.”
Hold on. You looked at a character who was anorexic and bulimic, heavily depressed and suicidal, who was institutionalized after she tore apart her room and declared her intent to kill herself and saw that as throwing away her education?
Are we fucking kidding?
In regards to my mental health, I am in an exceptionally fortunate position. My friends, my boyfriend, my parents, my extended family, they all know about my situation and they care, they understand, they try to help. Even the people in my life who have never had to deal with mental illness in once capacity or another make an effort to educate themselves, to empathize, and to try as best they can to help.
In short, I’m lucky because it’s infrequent that I have to deal with callous ignorance.
I doubt that the girl in my class meant to be unfeeling toward mental illness and anyone who deals with it. I doubt she made her comment out of malice. But I also doubt that she has ever had to experience mental illness, or that she has made anything more than the most superficial effort to educate herself.
Mental illness is still taboo in America, and in most parts of the world. It’s so demonized that people who are suffering can go to the deepest depths of their diseases without seeking help. The people who do seek help can be denied it, by insurance, by complicated doctor’s visits and referrals. They can be ostracized by their friends, their communities — even their families.
Two of the biggest contributors to these issues are a lack of information, and a lack of empathy.
One of the greatest things that humans are capable of is empathy. When your mom is ill, you feel for her and want to help. When a friend’s marriage falls apart, you give them support, even if you’ve never had a long term relationship yourself. When your colleague’s father dies, you send a sympathy card, maybe you even bake them something to show you’re sorry that they’re hurting. Hell, if you see a stranger crying alone on the street, it’s likely you’ve checked in to see if they’re okay.
We all practice empathy in our day to day lives, so why is it so difficult to put that empathy toward understanding and accepting mental illness and those who live with it?
Maybe it’s because you’ve never challenged yourself to look mental illness in the face. Proper education and information have the power to completely alter a person’s viewpoint. You don’t have to be completely knowledgable about a subject, whether it’s related to mental health, poverty, race, gender, or any other issue.
You just have to try.
Make an effort to learn about mental health, whether you suffer from mental illness or equally importantly, if you don’t. You may never have given mental health a second thought! If that’s the case for you, you are lucky and I am truly happy for you. But I’m also here to tell you that that does not exclude you from having a knowledgeable, informed view of an issue that affects millions of people around the world.
Open yourself up to learning about mental health. When it becomes evident that you have problematic views, it is necessary to educate yourself. It is necessary to do better. You owe it to yourself, and to those around you to be better.