In my opinion, it is impossible to have the former need met without the latter. When we are unable to express who we truly are, how we are feeling, how we process and make sense of the world around us, and our deepest fears and dreams, we cannot fully connect with anyone else.
What does this have to do with World Mental Health Day?
We live in a world that constantly and relentlessly punishes us for expressing ourselves authentically. Our society often views emotion as a sign of weakness, alternative realities as indications of impaired judgment, difference as a form of illness that needs to be cured, and distress as a result of irrational thinking. We are taught to be afraid of this kind of authenticity in both ourselves and others – to be ashamed of who we are and how we feel, and to be embarrassed of others’ raw expressions of themselves.
To me, no system of thought reflects this cultural tendency better than the notion of 'mental health.' The ideology of mental health, or, as neurodiversity scholar Nick Walker likes to put it, the pathology paradigm, posits that there is only one correct, healthy way of being, and any sort of divergence from that way of being is illness or disorder. Any level of emotion that surpasses the DSM’s arbitrary cutoff for what constitutes a healthy amount of feeling, any belief or viewpoint that strays from the bounds of what doctors have decided is normal, any desire or wish that has been deemed unrealistic or irrational – these are all just a few examples of authentic expressions that are deemed by mental health professionals as in need of treatment.
The pathology paradigm is the foundation of a system in which people are punished violently for these kinds of expressions. Words cannot quite capture what it feels like to not own the rights to your own body; nothing fully describes the horrific realization that you do not have the right to say “no.”
Involuntary civil commitment and forced treatment mean so many things to me: the terror of being locked in a closet-sized room with glass windows, unsure of when I would be released; the panic I felt when I was ordered to take off my clothes for a strip search and knew what would happen if I disobeyed; the apprehension that I would slip up and falter from my “model patient” persona for even a second and be held longer; the restlessness and emptiness of waiting to be released, each minute feeling like an hour; the shame and regret I still feel over not attending my own college graduation due to being locked up instead.
To some of my friends, co-workers, and comrades, forced treatment has meant being electroshocked with and without anesthesia, being injected with powerful antipsychotics, and being subjected to behavior therapies and efforts to reprogram who they are through rewards and sometimes physical punishments.
And for all of this, we are told we should be grateful. One could argue that even the notion of “forced treatment” is the ultimate form of victim-blaming – survivors are constantly told that because the ways we were expressing ourselves were symptoms of an illness in need of “treatment,” the use of force was justified. “You should be glad someone cared enough to get you the help you needed,” I hear regularly.
It is not just the use of state-sanctioned force and violence that limits our ability to be ourselves. It is also social coercion – the social and environmental factors that make life very difficult for people seen as different. Every day, people face discrimination and prejudice for expressing thoughts and feelings that we have been trained to see as abnormal. Of course, the mental health industry exploits and perpetuates this prejudice.
In a world where these are the potential consequences of just expressing certain thoughts, feelings, and actions, how can we expect anyone to be themselves? And if no one can be themselves, how can anyone connect?
As humans, we are all so incredibly different from one another. We have vastly different ways of experiencing, processing, and responding to the world around us. And that is a beautiful thing – the world would be awfully boring if we were all the same! But sometimes, when one considers how different we all are, it is a mystery how we manage to connect and relate. It can feel very lonely and isolating to realize you are the only person in the world who possesses and fully understands your exact set of values, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and personality.
But while we have differences, there are universal experiences we all share. Real connection comes from those shared experiences. To be human is to feel pain, sadness, loss, anger, fear, joy, happiness, and hopefulness. To be human is to have strongly held values and beliefs that are shaped by our lives. We can all relate and empathize with these human experiences. In being forced to suppress them, what is there left to connect over?
I believe there is nothing more powerful than the human connection that occurs when one person expresses a unique thought, feeling, or experience, and another person responds, “Me too.” It is in these moments that we begin to feel less alone.
The mental health paradigm so often robs us of our potential to connect with one another.
- It is for this reason that today, instead of observing World Mental Health Day and validating a paradigm that views some people’s natural way of being and expressing themselves as ill or disordered, I plan to celebrate human connection.
- Instead of advocating for more mental health treatment, I plan to do my best to support people in distress by validating their emotions and sharing their pain.
- Instead of telling people to use coping skills to manage or curtail their emotions, I will view these emotions as a natural part of the range of the human experience.
- And instead of raising awareness for “mental illness,” I will help spread the message that distress and crisis are a universal component of being human.