Mental illness, information pills is also deeply misunderstood. Comments like “have you tried going outside?” “are those pills really helping?” “just take a chill pill”, website “why don’t you just choose to be happy?” and “but you have nothing to be depressed/anxious/sad/paranoid about!” get bandied around like meaningless platitudes sewn onto a cushion you can find in your local supermarket. The consequential feelings of isolation that follow such a misunderstanding of mental illness merely engender more stigma surrounding not only mental illness, but mental wellbeing, too. Even on a broad level, people seem to see mental health as opposing sets of ideals; perfect happiness or straitjacketed in an asylum. But mental health sits on a spectrum, and I think what stops a lot of people talking about their emotions is that they think they’re either a) not crazy enough, or b) too crazy. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that women were locked and dosed up with the diagnosis “hysteria”, and this diagnosis was attached to women on their periods, or just any woman who maybe had a bit of a cry every now and again. Strangely enough, the word ‘hysteria’ stems from the Latin ‘hystericus’, meaning ‘of the womb’. This couldn’t paint a clearer picture of how we see mental health among women. We hear it all the time; “you’re overreacting!” “you’re being crazy”, “stop being so dramatic”. It’s a form of gaslighting. It stops women from trusting their own emotions so they look to other sources for how to think and feel. In short, it strips us of our independence of mind.
A huge side of shame and guilt comes with mental illness, especially for women. Women who speak about their neuroses and psychoses, specifically when it’s to do with their bodies and what emerges from them, are made to feel ungrateful, and are ridiculed until they either move to the back of the queue, or are silenced entirely. Although I see a lot of people talking about how patriarchy stops men from talking about their emotions, and while I think there is definitely a stigma surrounding men and their feelings, I can’t help but think that there’s something about women crying in cubicle stalls, patting blotted cheeks with damp toilet paper, and wiping away tears to put on a brave face and step outside like nothing ever happened, that makes me think perhaps we have a problem with women expressing their emotions, too. Even in conversations about pregnancy and childbirth, there’s still loads of shame attached to mental distress. “Why are you depressed? You just brought life into the world!” I saw commented on a picture of a mother and her child, with an accompanying caption commenting on her postnatal depression. In just one comment, this person tried to undermine the legacy of women shamelessly talking about the physical and mental trauma involved in pregnancy and childbirth. “Someone said that mums are the rocks that never crumble,” Holly McNish writes in her book Nobody Told Me. “I don’t think that’s true, ‘cause I do. We are parents, but we are people. We are rocks crumbling sometimes in love that’s so heavy. We are storytelling experts and our stories are many.” She highlights perfectly not only the silencing of women, but also the pressure on women, especially mothers, to be constantly above par and to have a stiff upper lip, even when you’re going through something life changing. Women are strong, yes, but why must that template of female strength be so masculine? Bottling up our emotions, never showing how we really feel, resorting to violence, putting on a “brave” face. If being a strong woman involves this, then I want no part of it.
Furthermore, there is a double standard that wants women to be emotional, but only when it’s convenient, or when what we’re emotional about seems superficial enough. Women are taught to channel our emotions into where we see ourselves in relation to two things: vanity and men. Does he love me? Does he love her? Is he cheating on me? Am I hot enough? Why won’t he call me? Is this okay to put in a text? Will he like me if I say this? Does my butt look big in this? Why is it always expected of us to focus our emotional attention in these places? And whenever a woman does cry or express any kind of emotion, she’s criticized for being too feminine. “Female tears!” is the battle cry squawked by misogynists whenever a woman on TV, especially a reality show, cries. (What are “female tears” anyway? Are they adorned with pink ribbons?) We’re allowed to cry, but then we’re ridiculed because what we cry about isn’t “highbrow” enough. Tears are a sign of vulnerability, that is then pulled apart and exploited until we become lifeless, emotionless automatons of a Low-Maintenance Male Fantasy. Historically, part of a woman’s value has been placed in her ability to endure pain and violence in silence. We tell women to be low-maintenance, to always be super chill about everything, never complain. But what does this achieve? Who is profiting from this? To me there’s a stark difference between genuine humility and being silenced into not speaking up. Tropes of this low-maintenance super chill cool girl inform and make the latter.
It goes without saying, then, that it’s important that our societies have a decent understanding of emotional, wellbeing, health, and mental illness. Mental health is complex, but the cruelty of just general mental unrest is that it makes the patient feel alone and freakish, when in fact often the opposite is true. With so many of us experiencing some kind of mental illness in our lifetimes, there simply must be someone who feels the same way. The odds to the contrary are minuscule. Mental illness need not be a life sentence, or indeed a death sentence, if only we’d just talk about it.
Written by Rochelle Asquith