Anonymity and Mental Illness

The stigma of mental illness has many negative consequences, such as decreased access to employment and housing, barriers to seeking treatment, and many broken friendships and relationships.

What it also does, unfortunately, is make it much harder for people who’ve suffered from mental illness to speak about it publicly, using their real names.

I’ve been thinking about this because North by Northwestern, our campus magazine, ran a feature in its spring issue about mental illness at Northwestern. Overall, the piece was great and discussed how our academic system may be contributing to unhealthy levels of stress. The author of the piece interviewed two students who spoke about their experiences with depression and anxiety.

But both of the students’ names were changed for the article, and it bothered me.

For the record, I would never begrudge an individual for choosing to speak about his or her mental illness under a pseudonym. We all have different priorities, and not everyone has decided to spend their life advocating for those with mental illnesses (as, for instance, I have). Even those who do may decide that using a pseudonym is in their best interest–for instance, this blogger whom I greatly respect.

The magazine, however, could have chosen to find sources who would be willing to let their real names be printed. I know it could’ve, because those people exist on our campus. I’m one of them. Many of my friends are, too.

This is important for several reasons, some short-term and some long-term.

The short-term reason is that seeing fellow students speak publicly about their experiences with mental illness can make a huge difference in the life of someone who’s just starting to acknowledge and deal with their own illness. It lets them know they’re not alone and gives them hope for the future.

It can also give them a specific person to reach out to. After I started writing about depression, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers started writing to me, sharing their stories, and asking for advice. I heard from friends that I knew were struggling and friends who seemed to have everything together. I heard from a guy who’d told me once that he’d had depression briefly but pulled himself out of it on his own. I felt humbled to know the truth.

A friend of mine who spoke in a panel about her eating disorder once told me that she had the same experience. She was quoted in an article about the panel, and afterwards people reached out to her about it.

There’s a bigger picture, though, as well. Every time someone “goes public” about a mental illness, they chip away at the culture of secrecy that surrounds it. And the more of us do it, the harder it’ll be to deny us jobs, cut off friendships with us, continue believing that we’re weak and lazy, and be ashamed of us.

I’m glad those two students spoke to NBN, and I know it was hard for them to do even knowing that their names would not be in print. But NBN had a chance to do something really important, and they missed that chance.

As I was writing this post, I found out that there’s someone pretty powerful who recently took that chance. During his speech for people who have lost family members in the military, Vice President Biden talked about the deaths of his wife and daughter in 1972. Then, he said, “I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here, but it’s more important–you’re more important.” Then he went on:

For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, but because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.

Biden’s not the only one, of course. Plenty of well-known people have spoken about mental illness, such as Rachel Maddow, William Styron, and Demi Lovato.

In his seminal book on depression, The Noonday Demon (which I have coincidentally just finished reading), Andrew Solomon intentionally avoids using pseudonyms whenever possible. On the first page of the book, he writes,

I asked my subjects to allow me to use their actual names, because real names lend authority to real stories. In a book one of the aims of which is to remove the burden of stigma from mental illness, it is important not to play to that stigma by hiding the identities of depressed people.

I believe that when writing about mental illness, one must be cautious of the status quo. With regards to mental illness, as with regards to just about everything else, the status quo can be a dangerous thing. You cannot think and write about the tragedy of mental illness without also acknowledging the tragedy of stigma, which pushes so many of us to stay silent for too long. In my case, it was eight years. For others, it’s a lifetime.

Accepting the use of pseudonyms in one’s work just because that’s what’s always been done, or because finding interview subjects who are willing to use their real names might be difficult, does an injustice to everyone who suffers from the continuing presence of stigma.

Advertisements

Setting the Record Straight

Note: On April 24, the Daily Northwestern published an opinion column that included a backhanded and (in my opinion) unfair reference to me and my blog–namely, to my Markwell post. I wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

To the editor:

In his Tuesday column, Peter Larson discussed the response to Cru’s Markwell campaign and mentioned one particular “fire and brimstone” blogger whose “gripes” caused him to roll his eyes. Since Larson used a female pronoun and, to my knowledge, I am the only female writer to have written a blog post critical of the Markwell campaign, I can only assume that he was referring to me. I’d like to set the record straight.

First of all, I disagree that there was anything “fire and brimstone” about my blog post. Although I do have strong opinions, as do many bloggers and newspaper columnists, I believe that my post was reasoned and well thought-out. In fact, while Larson may dismiss my opinion, one Cru member chose to engage with it by writing a public Facebook note in response. Rather than inserting a snarky, oblique reference to me into his note, he referred to me by name.

Second, Larson seems to have conflated writers like me with anonymous commenters who troll North by Northwestern. There is absolutely nothing wrong with respectfully stating your opinion, as I did and as Larson has done in his column. While rolling one’s eyes in a “decaffeinated haze” might well be the best response to trolls, it’s an unfair response to someone who has taken the time to write a coherent blog post. Larson did not offer up any actual criticisms of my post, and, in fact, made it very clear that he didn’t really read it. Perhaps if he reread my post after having drunk his morning coffee, he would be able to actually criticize it.

Finally, the ironic twist here is that, in summarily dismissing a fellow writer with his snarky commentary, Larson has done exactly what he criticized in his column. My blog post led to many engaging discussions–and, yes, plenty of disagreement–among my friends and acquaintances. Our discussion at the University Christian Ministry on Tuesday night lasted for three hours. We’ve dived right in to the difficult issues that the Markwell campaign has raised and have learned a lot about each other in the process. To dismiss those of us who want to think about and comment on issues like these as having a “shortage” of intelligence is absolutely uncalled for.

My opinion is not a personal insult to you.

[Snark Warning]

It never ceases to amaze me how the act of expressing an opinion opens you up to the most outlandish assumptions about your personality.

Good girls, I know, don’t blog. Or at least, they don’t blog about anything substantial, and they definitely don’t do it using their real names.

Blogging about your personal life is okay, although then you’ll get derided for making your diary public. Posting photos of your friends, family, pets, and outfits, posting recipes and craft projects, posting favorite song lyrics–all of that is okay, if irrelevant.

But when you start blogging about Issues–those things you aren’t supposed to discuss at a dinner party or with your boss–that’s when things get dicey.

A few weeks ago I interviewed for a position on the executive board of the sexual health peer education group I’m involved with on campus. I’ve been involved with it since my freshman year, and now I was interviewing for a position that would put me in charge of, among other things, doing outreach to sororities on campus.

At the interview, they asked me about my blog. Specifically, they mentioned that I’ve expressed the fact that I dislike the Greek system, and wanted to know, wouldn’t that affect my ability to do this job?

Honestly, I was completely flummoxed by this question. Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m incapable of interacting with sorority women? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m unwilling to present educational programs at sorority houses? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I don’t care about sexual assault in the Greek community and don’t want to start an initiative to help prevent it?

I must’ve produced an acceptable response because I got the position. But the experience made me realize how naive I’d been, in a way. I thought that people would take my writing for what it is–ideological positions for which I (usually) provide sound reasoning. I didn’t realize that they would take it and extrapolate from it beliefs and character traits that I do not have.

Disliking the Greek system doesn’t affect my ability to create an outreach program for sororities. It doesn’t affect my ability to empathize with individual women who happen to be sorority members. It doesn’t affect my ability to do anything. It’s just an opinion. Not a personal attack on anyone. An opinion.

The only thing it could possibly affect is other people’s opinions of me. Other people may read about my opinions and take them personally. They may assume that I don’t like them–personally. They may assume that I’m a callous person.

But these are their problems, not mine. If they’ve never learned not to make assumptions about others, I’m not taking responsibility for that. And I’m not going to stop writing, or “tone it down,” for the sake of someone else’s comfort.

I love writing, and I specifically love writing about Issues. It’s my way of leaving my mark on the world, and, hopefully, of leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Other people find other ways of doing this. They volunteer, play music, do scientific research, start businesses, make art, get into politics, whatever. I write.

My greatest fear right now–aside from perhaps that I won’t get into graduate school and will end up living in a cardboard box, or that I’ll never get married and will end up living in that cardboard box alone–is that I’ll have to stop writing when I start my Career.

Why would I have to stop writing?

Because of other people’s unfounded assumptions about what my writing says about my character.

Because in the culture we’ve created, you can get fired from your day job for what you write on your blog, using your internet connection, in your home, on your time.

Because good girls are sweet and sensitive, and never express opinions that might offend someone.

Because people haven’t learned that others’ opinions are not personal attacks on them.

Criticizing is Not Complaining

Most bloggers expect and receive their fair share of stupid comments. It’s kind of an occupational hazard.

However, one recurring theme I see in comments–both on my writing and that of other opinion writers–disappoints me the most. That theme is always some variation on the following: “Sure, this is a problem. But it’s not worth writing about. I hate it when people complain about stuff that’s never going to change anyway.”

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between complaining and criticizing. Complaining is whiny and usually only points out something that’s crappy without explaining why it’s crappy, let alone proposing a way to make it better. Complaining is what people do when they post Facebook statuses about how much they hate Mondays or how annoyed they are about a new rule at school or work. Complaining is usually intended to generate sympathy, although it often fails at doing so because it is irritating.

Criticizing is very different. It involves describing an issue and explaining why it’s problematic. A good critic should also offer some suggestions for change, though that’s not absolutely necessary. (Sometimes those suggestions are best identified by reading a critic’s entire body of work; for instance, many of my posts describe problems that could be ameliorated through increased attention to mental health in our society, but I don’t always explicitly state that in each post.) The primary goal of criticism is not to elicit sympathy or attention for the writer, but to point readers’ attention to a subject that the writer thinks is important.

Readers who misinterpret the purpose of critical writing are doing a disservice to the writer and to themselves. Because these readers usually only write when it’s required for school or work or when they want to share something with their friends on Facebook, they fail to recognize the fact that, to other people, writing can have a greater purpose than that. Although most writers enjoy receiving compliments on their work, they don’t do it solely for those compliments; they do it for any number of reasons that the reader may not know. So why assume the worst?

In other words, I really hate it when people dismiss my writing as “complaining.” If that’s really what you think it is, you’re missing the point by a pretty wide margin.

Supposing a given reader has already made the decision to view all serious, critical writing as “whiny” and unworthy of his or her attention, that still leaves the question of why it’s necessary to demand that the writer stop producing it. The comments I see to this effect rarely just say that they dislike the piece in question; they usually tell the writer to “stop complaining” or that “this isn’t worth writing about.”

This really bewilders me because one would think that people would learn over time which writers they enjoy reading, and which ones irritate them. If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.

Then there are the readers who claim to agree with my point, but who think that I shouldn’t write about it because…well, just because. Usually they’ll say that there’s no point, that it’s not going to change anyway, that I’m only going to annoy people with my “complaining,” that bringing attention to the problem will cause undue criticism of certain groups or values that the reader holds dear, or–my personal favorite–that I’ll just make people realize how shitty things really are (and, of course, that’s a bad thing).

I’ll grant that there’s a fairly decent chance that nothing I personally write will ever change the world, unless I become very well-known someday. Most writers aren’t going to single-handedly change anything. But enough criticism and conversation creates an environment in which change is possible, because it places certain issues on our cultural agenda.

Furthermore, I would challenge these readers to provide me with an example of a time when people kept quiet, behaved well, and patiently waited for some societal issue to improve–and it just did.

Chances are, there isn’t an example, because you can’t solve a problem if nobody speaks up and calls it one.

From revolutions to tiny cultural shifts, all social change works this way. No dictator wakes up one morning and decides to let a democratic government take over, no CEO wakes up one morning and decides to start paying employees a living wage, and no bigot wakes up one morning and decides not to be prejudiced anymore. Unless, that is, somebody challenges them and forces them to change.

Not interested in changing the status quo? That’s fine. You don’t have to be.

But some of us are, and you should get out of our way.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.