While I believe we as a society have taken steps towards encouraging mental health, self-care, and breaking stigma, we still have a long way to go. After Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died by suicide, many people tweeted about the well-meaning hypocrisy that inevitably arises after these moments in history. People talk about mental health for a couple of days, repost the Suicide Hotline, and talk about how tragic the loss was.
There is nothing wrong with this. I've definitely done it. However, this is not enough. Steps like these are good; they make us feel better about ourselves. They very well may help someone. But they're only a start.
As many people have said, reaching out isn't easy, and even the people who seem the strongest need help. As allies, we have to reach out to others, we have to make ourselves available, and we have to educate ourselves and show empathy.
Getting trained in Mental Health First Aid is an awesome step. Making notes to yourself to check in on each of your friends, especially when a lot is going on, and then following through with that is a good step. Having discussions with affected communities about how mental health intersects with issues such as homelessness, politics, sexuality, gender, various age groups, and so much more is a good step.
We have to learn about and discuss these issues and intersections. We have to use non-stigmatizing language in our daily talk -- also known as not saying statements like "the weather is bipolar" or "she's crazy" or "he's bulimic" or "I'm so OCD." It's also known as people-first language and empathy, which is different than sympathy.
But still, this is not everything. One of the most frustrating things is the romanticization and glamorization of mental illness, which we can easily find everywhere: TV shows, magazines, movies, books, people's commentary, Tumblr posts. Mental illness isn't beautiful or trendy. We are not more or less of people for being more or less sick. We are beautiful and whole people, and mental illness cannot affect that one way or another.
At the center of this prevalent issue is the Netflix's "Thirteen Reasons Why." While the creators meant well and it has great potential, I as well as many others have found problems with the way it portrays suicide, its lack of true discussion about mental health, and its lack of content warnings for very graphic scenes.
Since posts that romanticize and glamorize mental illness can be triggering and just generally unhelpful, I don't want to include anything too specific. In Embody Carolina trainings, one of our ground rules is no mention of numbers, such as weights, calorie counts, pounds lost, or miles run. Putting an eating disorder down to a mere number reduces the vastness, intensity, far-reaching, and harmful nature of it.
Numbers can also trigger people to engage in behaviors and make people who didn't reach that point feel less valid. And if you know me, you know I talk about validity (or the lack of it) at least three to five times a day. Feeling and helping others feel valid in their emotions and experiences is so crucial. I could talk about this for hours.
So if you choose to share your eating disorder story, for example, please share responsibly. Follow the guidelines set by the National Eating Disorders Association, spread encouraging messages of recovery, and don't tell us about the amount of times you were hospitalized, how much weight you lost, how you almost died, how sick you were, or anything similar. It's not helpful and you don't need it for your story to be valid, I promise you. Your eating disorder isn't the point -- your recovery is.
While eating disorders -- specifically anorexia -- are often glamorized in the media, throwing around buzzwords like "control" and "thin" and "waif," and movie after movie is about a young white girl who suffers from anorexia, gets access to treatment easily, and eventually recovers -- many other mental health challenges are romanticized and thrown around harmfully as well.
I've come across pictures of self-harm and people's poetic language about its "beauty." I've seen posts that make suicide seem like the beautiful, easy, and only option. I've seen jokes about social anxiety. I've heard jokes that make light of suicidality, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I've heard jokes about how people want eating disorders. It's sickening and it's sad and it's simply not okay.
I do not at all mean to imply that people who deal with self-harm aren't beautiful or that they should be ashamed of their scars, and I understand that some people make jokes about their own problems with mental health as a defense mechanism. My point here is to remind us all to think about what messages we're sending to other people -- how what we say and do affects those around us.
Depression, in and of itself, isn't trendy. Depression is a cinder block roped to your feet. It's the voice that tells you that you aren't worthy of love. It keeps you from being around your friends and family.
Self-harm, in and of itself, isn't beautiful. Self-harm is dealing with so much pain that you hurt your own body. It goes against our instincts; it endangers our lives.
Anxiety, in and of itself, isn't cute. It's a racing heartbeat. It's losing participation points in class. It's exhaustion from a mind that's constantly racing itself while simultaneously never getting anywhere.
These few issues embody only a few of the many mental health challenges and only a few portrayals of its ugliness.
We are people, not problems. We are too good of people with too much going for us to be reduced down to a disorder that is smaller than us, that did not come before us. We are bigger than our struggles; we are worthy of support. By making mental illnesses seem "fun," the definition of ourselves, or "a beauty to seek," we encourage people to be sick, to not understand that a better life is out there for them, and that mental illnesses aren't valid problems deserving of compassion and care.
Read and remember this: your struggle is valid, and you don't need to use numbers or side effects or a list of your symptoms to prove it. Practice validating yourself when others do not. Know that you are not a problem to be solved, but a person to be cared for. Mental illness isn't pretty, and by trying to make it pretty, we're hurting others -- and ourselves -- in a multitude of ways. Have discussions about how mental illness affects people from all walks of life. Share your story responsibly. Think about the impacts of what you say and how you act. Check in with friends and family and people you hardly know. Love and be empathetic and educated always. Love yourself and everyone else as if it's the last day on Earth. Treat people the way you want to be treated.