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The Spectrum: Ending mental illness stigma shouldn’t require me to relive my trauma

Katie Pach, Op-Ed Contributor

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Wednesday marked World Mental Health Day. Amid the flurry of “check in on your friends” tweets and “self care is so important” Facebook posts, people around the world — myself included — shared personal stories of their struggles with mental illness.

I’ve grappled with my mental health since I was a kid. I was 13 the first time I asked, “Why does my brain work like this?” I was always mature for my age, so apparently that meant I was old enough to be contemplating my own mortality in between school dances and volleyball practice. I dealt with things far more complex than I was equipped to handle at the time, and I did so mostly in secret. I knew what I was feeling wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t want those feelings to change the way people saw me. Even as a child, I knew talking about mental health was taboo.

But I won’t go into great detail about about my struggles, both to avoid triggering anyone reading and to save myself the pain of reliving them. Victims of trauma, mentally ill folks and survivors of all kinds are routinely asked to open up our lives and our suffering in order to gain legitimacy from the mainstream.

No one is entitled to my or anyone else’s story, yet neurotypical and non-mentally ill people require us to relive our struggles as a means of validation. In my experience, unless I can share excruciating personal details, my mental health issues are barely a blip on the radar to most people. Unless I’ve gone through years of therapy, I’m not really trying to get better, nevermind the fact that therapy is expensive, often inaccessible, requires knowledge of how to navigate healthcare systems and still carries a heavy stigma. If you’re not in therapy, you’re not trying, but if you are in therapy, you’re crazy. And as soon as you’re the “crazy friend,” people walk on eggshells, either afraid for you or of you. No matter what I do, it seems like there’s no winning.

Mentally ill people are told to be honest and open about our issues in order to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. We are required to do the work, and if we can’t or won’t, people doubt our experiences or blame us for staying quiet and reinforcing shame. This is especially true for communities of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. We are already fighting stigma, discrimination and generational trauma just to survive. Often, that survival involves putting on a brave face and avoiding vulnerability at all costs. We are required to give so much already just to get by; don’t make us give you our trauma in exchange for basic respect.

All this is not to say that you should not listen or encourage people to share their feelings. Being an open and compassionate ear is immeasurably helpful. But stop making a detailed account of suffering a prerequisite for support. Stop making us relive our darkest moments so you can determine how crazy — and therefore how deserving of help — we really are. You don’t need my medical history to believe me. You don’t get to make the judgement of whether or not I am deserving of empathy and compassion. You don’t need to own my pain to support me through it. You wouldn’t demand to know how someone broke their leg before holding a door open for them, so don’t ask why I’m mentally ill before acknowledging the reality of my feelings. I’m not asking for miracles, and I’m not asking you to fix anyone. I’m asking you to try your best. Don’t shy away from your loved ones when they’re struggling. It’s difficult, and often thankless, but please don’t give up. Even if you don’t understand or relate, the fact that you are willing to try means something.

World Mental Health Day is a great initiative, and I am so happy to raise awareness of mental health issues at large, but I don’t need your support just once a year. I need to be able to tell you about my feelings tomorrow or next week or a month from now. Your empathy should not be contingent on the date on the calendar or the details of my distress. So keep it up. Keep educating yourself about mental illness. Keep an eye and ear out for your friends and family in need. We are more than our suffering. Listen to us when we speak, be open when we’re ready, but do not demand to know our pain.

Katie Pach is a Medill senior. They can be contacted at katherinepach2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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