Active Minds and Psych Students

I went to a meeting last night for a new group on campus called Active Minds. Apparently it's a new chapter of a national organization, and their stated purpose is to "promote mental health awareness, break down the stigma surrounding mental illness, create programs that raise awareness, and facilitate discussions surrounding mental health issues."

I went because I have depression. I have it in the classic sense where I'm more or less fine most of the time but I have major depressive episodes that last around four to six months every 1-3 years. It mostly doesn't affect my daily life until I'm having an episode, and I've gotten better at preventing them and recognizing the beginnings of episodes so I can get help through them. I choose not to take medication at this point.

I was hoping that this group would be a forum for students with "mental illnesses" to come forward and denounce the stigma surrounding them. You know, a community of like-minded individuals. Crazy-minded individuals if you will.

It wasn't.

So far as I could see, there were two kinds of people in the fairly packed room at the first meeting. There were students like me who probably had "mental illnesses" themselves and had come for similar reasons to mine. When we went around the room, they seemed fairly shy and had a variety of majors. Then there were the psychology students. Now, I'm not suggesting that psych students don't have "mental illnesses," but at least some of them clearly thought they didn't.

The psych majors were there because they were interested in decreasing the stigma of "mental illness" in order for "mentally ill" people to be able to get help and get "cured" more easily. A lot of them talked about having friends who had mental problems and how bad and painful this was, and a big concern was how to get people around "mentally ill" folks to help them effectively.

It was all about making the "mentally ill" folks better. Fixing us. The girl who was running the meeting said at one point that she wanted people to "understand mental illness as a disease that's curable."

The thing is that "mental illnesses" are not curable. They're treatable. There's a huge difference. You can treat a "mental illness" with medication or talk therapy or any number of other methods, but by definition it will always be there to deal with in one way or another. Never "cured."

There's also a huge difference between helping someone and fixing them. I, as a "mentally ill" person do sometimes need more help than others to get through my everyday life. I very, very much appreciate this help when it's given and I need the support structures that the mental health community provides. I need those structures to be accessible, and making that happen does help me.

What I don't need is to be fixed. This is just a part of who I am, and I think I deserve respect. Maybe in spite of the "illness" and maybe even in some ways because of it. And that's what I was looking for when I went to a meeting to destigmatize "mental illness," some kind of respect for people with different (Active?) minds. An actual lack of stigma. You're not going to destigmatize something by trying to fix it until it's gone. That's still devaluing it.

But the thing is, the only people at this meeting who spoke up were the psych students. I didn't hear a peep from anyone saying they had a "mental illness," or what that was like, or what they might need. And sure, I didn't speak up either because I figured out pretty quickly that this wasn't the group I was looking for. It was clear as soon as they prissily said "This won't be a support group, it's just a group to run events to lessen stigma."

It wasn't a welcoming atmosphere to admit that you were "mentally ill." Isn't it funny that a meeting purporting to destigmatize "mental illness" silenced the "mentally ill"?

Note: You may have noticed I have put "mental illness" in quotations throughout the post. I really dislike this term and will discuss it in more depth in an upcoming post.


Myca said...

It sounds like the stories I've heard about the very earnest white college students back in the late 50's who would hold long discussions about how best to help the cause of racial integration, without thinking about listening to black people instead of talking over them.



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