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There are two basic axioms for most high school students living with a mental illness: (1) psychiatric troubles are not be discussed openly, as doing so can earn you the labels of “weird,” “crazy,” or “prone to violence,” and (2) the former makes high school a special kind of Hell, where one is constantly pressured to fit in at the expense of expressing their true self.
In an effort to undermine this crucible two students from Michigan, Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld, chose to dedicate an issue of their school’s newspaper to their peers’ experiences with mental illness and the stigma they confront on a daily basis. Recognizing their school as a progressive community complete with its own Depression Awareness group, the girls went about collecting testimonials from their fellow classmates, who agreed to share their stories without anonymity and with their parents’ permission. Everything seemed to be coming together until the head of their school put the kibosh on the project. Her reason? Publishing the stories may put the interviewees at risk for potential bullying. Furthermore, the collection may serve as a “trigger,” prompting participants to recede into their psychiatric illnesses, thus putting the students and the school itself at risk. Conversely, the headmaster had previously spoken out against the consequences of the stigma surrounding psychiatric illness, and even acknowledged the need to raise awareness about mental health.
As someone who has worked with and in educational institutions I sympathize with the headmaster’s point of view, although I vehemently disagree with her position. Her actions belie the principles that she seeks to promote and cater directly to the feelings of isolation and shame that individuals with mental illness continue to endure. By simultaneously recognizing that the stereotypes associated with mental illness are grossly inaccurate and should be usurped while censoring a project that would have helped accomplish this goal the headmaster managed to do a bureaucratic doublespeak that inadvertently bolstered the very things she is supposed to be advocating against. This administrative overkill is analogous to the military’s former “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, as they both imply that it’s perfectly okay to harbor a different identity, just as long as you don’t talk about it lest you disrupt community cohesion and wreak havoc on your peers. These hypocrisies insinuate that differences ought to be hidden away, which not only results feelings of alienation, but also inhibits the growth of kinship among individuals. In essence, the headmaster’s actions do little to protect her students, as they reinforced the connotations surrounding mental illness, which in turn leaves those suffering from psychiatric disorders feeling isolated.
Rosenfeld and Halperts’ project sought to mitigate this sentiment. Through the creation of an open discourse on mental illness, Rosenfeld and Halpert encouraged students to come out of the shadows and realize they are not as alone as they may think. This is a potent message to send in high school, where students can feel marginalized and vulnerable due to factors that are more common than they expect. Moreover, the students who agreed to be interviewed did so of their own volition, and could have potentially helped stymie the stigma associated with mental illness by putting a face to diseases that are so often misconstrued.
Censoring an honest discussion about mental illness and its accompanying stigma is not going to make its resulting problems disappear. Instead, it’s going to create a vacuum that will continue to fill with misconceptions and falsehoods. As a teenager I had several survival mechanisms to deal with my anxiety. I skipped school as often as possible by capitalizing on my allotted absences in order to avoid the social interactions that sent my heart thumping and my head spinning. I also made sure to never disclose what I was experiencing to my peers for fear that I would somehow be perceived as strange and unwelcome. This in turn caused me to withdraw from my social environment in an effort to suppress my feelings, which only exacerbated my anxiety and aggravated my symptoms.
It wasn’t until I came to college that I felt comfortable talking about my mental well being when I joined a peer network that promoted our school’s counseling and psychological services while simultaneously raising awareness on issues regarding mental health. Although these ties provided me with innumerable benefits I feel that no individuals should be told to wait an indeterminable amount of time before feeling safe to disclose a psychiatric illness. There’s no safety in falsehood, and Rosenfeld and Halpert sought to illustrate just that. Instead, they were told to keep silent for all the wrong reasons.
Chaya Himelfarb is a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News.