A few weeks ago, a friend that I lost to my anxiety wrote an article about how mental illness is no longer stigmatized. I won’t call this friend out because this isn’t about pettiness, but the confidence with which they wrote their argument shook me. The discussion is no longer needed, wrote my mentally healthy friend. Those with mental health issues are already free, they said.
And yet, four months ago, I sat around a table with them while our friends told me that since my diagnosed anxiety issues were less controlled than their undiagnosed ones, I was being unreasonable. I was high maintenance, dramatic, childish, and most importantly, out of the group.
But there’s no stigma anymore, of course.
I’ll admit that the conversation can be problematic. The issue with the highly saturated market of mental health media is that it has begun to resemble a very specific formula that sells; many stories of people with mild mental health issues that still conform to this broken yet ‘beautiful’ aesthetic that thrills preteens. I have yet to come across a story of anxiety that looks like mine, nor do I expect to. Given how individual experience of mental illness is, I’d have to write that myself, and I’m not ready to go there.
Much like the way that the large body of literature promoted by schools is dominated by old white men, the mental health market is dominated by romanticization of a basic mental unease. That’s not to say that the stories of the old white men aren’t valid, entertaining or important; they just make it easy for those of us that don’t fall into that category to get lost. The anxious struggles of my (ex) friends were completely valid and important, but the validity of my own experience was lost due to its lack of conformity.
While these romanticisations may be fun to read, they contribute to the stigmatisation in themselves. When you present people with characters who resemble nothing but their illness, you lead ignorant people to view real people like that, too. When you present characters who are only beautiful in the ways that they are damaged, you present illness as an aspiration. It’s fiction like that that undermines the genuinity of real stories that get lost when writing against a mental illness is hard enough.
It’s true that the successful yet tortured artist archetype is problematic, but not completely incorrect. It takes skill to convert the emotions attached to mental illness into art, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Not to mention that it takes so much more effort to do anything when mental illness is involved, so their success is even more impressive. To completely disconnect the artist from their mental struggles is a discredit to them.
One thing should be clear, though: if you’re mentally healthy, you don’t get to declare the destigmatisation ‘officially over’. If you’ve never been a victim of a stigma, you have no idea the struggles that people still face under it. Just the same as I would never dare to tell my disabled friend that ableism has been cured, my mentally healthy friends do me the courtesy of never undermining the sorry state that mental health awareness still stands in. If you still don’t believe me, I have enough second-hand stories of ignorant parents, militant teachers and the joys of peers to evidence that stigma is still alive and kicking.
The popularity of this genre isn’t just down to a few teens who want to be dramatic; we have a pandemic on our hands. I know so few lucky people who don’t experience regular mental health difficulties, and so fiction of this sort can give those of us hanging by a thread something to relate to. It can make us feel less alone. And yes, it can help us start to understand difficulties that we’re fortunate enough not to have to face.
Below is a list of books about mental health that I’ve seen similarities to myself in. While you may or may not feel the same, they’re incredibly enjoyable (if also sad) books that are definitely worth your time.
Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
Written about Green’s own experiences with mental health, this book follows a protagonist with OCD. Even though I don’t experience OCD, some of the repetitive thought patterns were like looking at my own brain on paper. What’s more, it avoided the pitfall of many John Green books of romanticising illness.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Cadence deals with the symptoms of PTSD in a way that touches upon the struggle between illness and anxiety.
Paperweight by Meg Haston
One of the most honest and raw books that I have ever read about mental illness. Seventeen-year-old Stevie is struggling with an eating disorder, and Paperweight follows her struggle to deal with it.
TRIGGER WARNING: While this is an amazing book, proceed with caution. It has the potential to trigger the same feelings even in healthy readers, and so I would not recommend it to somebody already vulnerable.
Milk And Honey by Rupi Kaur
A collection of poetry coming to terms with the effects of abuse.