Addressing Mental Health Stigma in Academia

This topic warrants more time, research, and reflection, but I want to begin sharing my initial reflections here, due to some recent experiences.

I’ve been baffled by the irony of mental health stigma in our communities. Especially in my locality for the past 9 years. Washington, DC has probably some of the most “depressed”  or unhappy people. Those of us who have been sick for a long time can detect signs of mental illness easily. It’s sad on an individual level, but in some ways expected on the collective level.  It could be that so many people are trying to climb up the ladder of “success” to infiltrate the bureaucracy and possibly finding themselves disappointed. 🙂  I have had a fair share of disappointments myself. In academia, so many students and professors have or are experiencing depression and anxiety and related illnesses and disorders. Some of them had depression long term, prior to pursuing this route, and some of them started having depression (or the related) when immersed in scholarship.  One or two scholars I admired have shared some of their experiences with me, and have consoled me at times, suggesting that mental health issues are commonplace when pursuing the doctorate degree.

So it remains a mystery to me, as to why this stigma persists in our academic circles and why we aren’t making more of an effort to talk about our mental health and well-being more frequently.  As we take the time to educate ourselves and increase our knowledge and scholarship to make important contributions within our fields of study, we don’t take enough time to reflect on our personal and collective state of mind and health.

I started writing this post because of an incident that happened to me more than a month ago. Although there is more to talk about, I hope for now, it can reveal an important message about  the urgency of careful and strategic “mental health intervention” and when intervention is necessary,  the different ways we can and should intervene in our professional or personal networks when we see someone who might be in trouble, and when it may potentially have the opposite effect, based on a unique individual’s case. This is difficult and challenging in the era of “truth-telling” and social media “openness,” but it is important we learn what is best and when it is best to intervene.

So, I will begin by sharing something unpleasant about me. A little over two months ago, I wrote a Facebook post about having suicidal thoughts.  I will warn you, it is a difficult one to take in. Here is the original Facebook post:

I stay alive, even though so many voices inside tell me to cease my existence, because no one will be my voice. No one will vouch for Elsa when she is gone. No one will remember the goodness in her soul. She’ll be forgotten within a matter of hours. I need to stay alive for that small part of me that knows her worth and value. When you are suicidal, it seems you endlessly encounter near death situations. Tonight I will sleep through the pain. Tomorrow I’ll recover and the cycle continues. Demons will tell me to die. I will tell them f*** off, … I’m going to live…just watch me…. That’s how it’s been for nearly 20 years. But I’m getting tired. I hope whatever it is inside that keeps me fighting these demons, won’t stop fighting. I hope I won’t give up on hope. Especially when no one can help me. #mentalhealthawareness#suicideawareness #suicideprevention #stopstigma #CureStigma#stopsuicide” 

Admittedly, it is a very unpleasant, uncomfortable and disheartening post that would sting anyone who genuinely cares about this person. Especially if this is the first that they have heard of her situation.

People who encounter a message like this in a social media platform may be thinking:

  • OMG Elsa. This is really bad. What are you doing. It’s going to hurt your image. Take it down immediately (The wrong response – And I never took it down);
  • OMG Elsa, I hope you’re okay (the better response);
  • OMG, I have to unfollow this pathetic self-absorbed attention-seeking loser (a rather cowardly response);
  • OMG Elsa, I have to contact her immediately (the better response),
  • OMG Elsa, (I gotta tell her parents or family members, (The wrong response in this case – they are my friends on facebook – they know I have always been an open book, and  whether they approve or not, that is their prerogative);
  • OMG (I gotta tell some ‘authorities’ – In this case the wrong response – this blog post will explain why).
  • OMG, this is really bad, but I really don’t care and I am tired of her posts about mental health, it’s so f-in annoying (a cowardly response and sadly the mainstream response).

So, I do have many different contacts in my online social networks that are professional, academic, personal, close friendship, old friendship, aunties, uncles, relatives, distant relatives from Pakistan, other professional contacts from Pakistan and other parts of the world, and what not. And several of the contacts are those of whom I have worked with at a professional capacity whether in an academic setting or with an organization. Several of whom I  have had positive collaborative relationships.  But I have always written with brutal honesty online, I have always been an open book whether it earns or cuts ties with whomever. For a good reason.

And I can say with certainty that it has created bridges, but at the same time, unfortunately, it has also burned bridges. Sometimes I am not sure if I am doing the right thing. Sometimes it makes me feel worse. Sometimes it empowers me. Sometimes I do feel a huge wave of shame radiating throughout my body the moment I press the submit button. It is certainly unconventional, the kinds of things I post, especially for someone who aspires to make a career in public policy and interact with DC bureaucrats. 🙂  Some people have “unfollowed me,” some people have “unfriended” me, both in real life and on Facebook, obviously after feeling discomforted by my authenticity. But something inside me tells me to tough it out, and keep writing.

I believe authenticity and openness is important regardless of the medium in which it is explored, for an individual struggling with mental illness.  And we, as a society, in our little communities, in the community at-large, among all our networks, must allow that in order to resolve this largely “invisible epidemic” and in order to eliminate the stigma that perpetuates the epidemic, and prevents individuals  not only getting the help they need from becoming strong positive contributors to society and their specific communities.

I hope to share some more ideas on what are the most appropriate “mental health interventions” in the academic setting and elsewhere in future posts. But the primary way to address mental health stigma, is simply just to talk about it and be open to a conversation. Conversations on mental health have been increasing, but not enough, and still, the “mentally ill” remain in the “othered” category; and I have argued, the most “othered” categories of all marginalized communities.

For the moment, I will share my response to the recent backlash I experienced from that post and various other posts about mental health, from faculty in my University.  It is a Facebook post I wrote and shared yesterday. I was informed that several faculty members reported me to the Student Support Services, as well as expressed concern in other ways to other authorities at my University, regarding my Facebook posts about suicidal ideations and mental health.

I want to use this incident to help reveal something I feel very unsettling in our response to mental health crises. We cannot respond with cookie-cutter approaches to mental health situations, when each individual’s mental health is as unique as that identification number on a dollar bill.

I am not providing too much detail at this time, but I hope my message to educate ourselves on what is the right thing to do depending on the circumstances, is clear.  The note is quite long, but it would be greatly appreciated, if you do take the time to read this.

Peace, Warmth, and Blessings,

Your Elsa

Warrior KQueen

Here it is:

“I want to take a moment to address something important that has come to my attention recently and the past several weeks. Firstly, I just want to note that I have immense respect and love for all the faculty I have been privileged to meet at my amazing School the past 8 years, even if it is not reciprocated. My School in some ways, has become my family, as I often refer to the PhD journey as a marriage of some sort.  Well, right now we have been engaged for a long time, and eventually the date for the wedding will be set. ;)…I was raised to place immense value on higher education, and to have a great amount of respect for academics and PhD scholars, and I hope I have been able to demonstrate that respect in most if not all of my interactions with faculty over the years.

I am writing this note because I was recently informed of certain “interventions” that several faculty members have taken to address specific posts that I share on Facebook related to my state of mental health. I don’t know who they are, and I did not ask for names. Although, I know that it is ultimately well-intended, and there can be some appreciation for the “concern,” I take issue with the choice of action that some of you have made. I won’t go into specifics, but I just have a few comments and I hope to expand this in a blog post I had started earlier this summer, specifically for addressing mental health stigma in the academic community, when I get a chance.

There have been some posts I have shared that understandably have been deeply concerning. Particularly in reference to suicide. But I want to make clear that if you have followed me on social networks and Facebook for some time, if you have read my posts in context and in full, you may recognize there is a broader connection I make when sharing the information. It is worth noting that many advocates of Mental Health actually suffer with mental health issues themselves. Just speaking about their struggles is part and parcel to the advocacy.

It is admittedly very unpleasant, uncomfortable, and painful for the people who you love to know that you are suffering, that you are struggling with such enigmas as mental illnesses, and suicidal ideations in particular. Expressing myself online started day 1 when I first joined Facebook, 1 year from its very inception, and it became an outlet for me, when I always felt like a burden to the people in my life, whether it be family or friends, when I did not reach the understanding with people that gave me the consolation I required, at a time when I didn’t fully grasp my condition, and when I did not want to bother anyone. Sometimes it was a cry for help. But when I realized no one was responding, I crafted some of these posts, and a lot of my pain in such a way to address the discrepancies of Stigma, and at the same time, empower myself to continue the fighting, as a form of what we call “self-help.”

I truly wish that I could say with all honesty and sincerity, that I am not suicidal. I wish to God that I could have the strength to live with my pain in silence, so I dont “bother” or “concern” or be a “burden” or a “menace” to anyone in my life about my state of mental health, whether on the phone, in person, or online. I wish to God I never had these ideations, but my truth is that I have always had these ideations, and I wish to God, I could say with confidence, that I will be okay. But I would be lying. I would not be living my authentic truth. I would be living a lie, and that unfortunately will be detrimental and counterproductive for the healing process.

Unfortunately, it remains “risky” to talk about your mental illness. It is risky to speak of mental illness among your professional contacts and colleagues. I recognized that risk a long time ago, and I still chose to follow my instincts. It is indeed a big risk for me in my career choice and path I am taking in public policy. I often say that I am a “fragile” human being, who has chosen to study “fragile” states. It seems ironic, but I argue that it is a logical calling. Ultimately, for many people, it is much better to let it out in the open, so that appropriate understandings can be made either at the professional or personal level, and because living with a mask only increases the shame and hinders the process of recovery.

When you are getting closer and closer to the finish line, so many forces around you start to work against you and harder. You are swimming against faster currents. My hope is that I can demonstrate that against the odds I face with the intersections of my being, I was able to get my doctorate. That people struggling with debilitating chronic long-term mental illnesses and disorders, can be public servants and can make positive contributions to society. But we need to be able to grieve the pain and suffering, and grieve openly, without any fear of retributions, if it something that we have grown to recognize as an essential part of the healing and recovery.

Going back to the point I made in the beginning about reciprocity. I would have hoped that whoever I trusted to be added as my Facebook friend, would have been able to detect some sort of “resilience” in me from the types of posts I was sharing. Not only that, I would have hoped that the respect we have built and fostered at my school, would be mutual, enough that despite any discomfort you have on discussing mental illness in general, you could have seen me as a strong Adult woman, in her early to mid 30s, that you can DIRECTLY approach if anything about her social media posts concerned you (with respect to her health). Because maybe then she could tell you DIRECTLY just a scratch of what she is doing to conquer her fight.

I don’t want to get into what kinds of interventions are appropriate in what circumstances, I will reserve that for a later blog post that I will write, after completing this dissertation chapter I need to get done…. But as I mentioned already, if you have been reading my posts, and if you read my posts in all its context, you can see that I have hashtags after the comments I make, almost in every single one of them, indicating a connection to a broader advocacy agenda. These include but are not limited to: #MentalHealthAwareness #CureStigma #MentalHealthMatters #StopStigma#StopSuicide and #SuicidePrevention…. I invite you to read my personal blog as well, where I write from time to time about mental health and intersectionality from my experiences, and other types of relevant posts. The website is visible on my facebook and I share some posts from time to time.

Many mental health advocates find that using their pain to inform on a serious problem in our community is one way of healing, and this should not be taken away from them in any direct or indirect way. Wrong “mental health interventions” can possibly further instill more fear in people who are struggling, fear of possible retributions in their social and professional interactions, and this is unjust. And not being able to speak directly to a 34 year old adult woman, who is clearly demonstrating mental health advocacy, showing resilience as a doctoral candidate, is unfortunately, a second form of “othering” whether intentional or unintentional, that arguably is a product of a stigma we must eradicate.

Please forgive me if I have caused any pain or concern, simply because of the pain that I live with every single day. I will never be appreciated for my struggles. But I know that God appreciates that I am fighting this with all my might and I know that I will win. But that does not mean that from time to time, I will not relapse. I just cannot apologize for writing posts about mental health or my own mental health, and I cannot stop speaking about mental health issues. It is not necessarily my calling, but it is certainly a responsibility I have to accept, given what I know and what I have endured….For my own healing process, and for the broader problem impacting communities at-large.

I hope that all educators, at all levels, in all disciplines, will take the time to revisit and reflect on what “mental health interventions” are appropriate, for whom, based on the individual, taking in the different signs, language, etc. that you are witnessing. Let us empower students and not contribute to the many negative forces working against them.

It is important to intervene. But when it is right.

Warm sincerity and regards. Your, Elsa.

#WarriorQueen #MentalHealthAwareness #CureStigma #StopStigma #SuicidePrevention #MentalHealthMatters

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.”

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