Mental health and society.
There are a whole bunch of stigmatised ingredients, flourishes, elements, and parts of people, in the society we live within. One of those is mental health.
Mental health, or mental wellness is something I’ve struggled with since my late teens. I’ve struggled with feeling a flat-grey-colour-and-joy-leached-hopelessness-no-motivation type of depression, where even just getting out of bed to make a cup of tea and get dressed feels overwhelming.
But another level of struggle around mental wellness for me, is the feeling bad-guilty-ashamed, about feeling down. This is the internalised societal stigmatising and prejudice around mental health. This is feeling that if I could stop being a wimp and just get on with it, harden up, stop wallowing and complaining, things would be better. That I should be stronger than this. It’s feeling like I shouldn’t be feeling like this, because I don’t have it that bad compared to other people in the world.
Luckily a good friend told me that this is a ludicrous notion, because in that projection, there would be only one person in the world who would be “allowed” to feel bad, because everyone else wouldn’t have it as bad as that person.
With my struggle with the dynamics of sometimes not-so-good-mental-wellness, the feelings, and the validity of feelings, it can sometimes help if I think of it as “bad fat arse syndrome” (as opposed to good fat arse, not that binaries are to be lauded, but for the purposes of this demonstration...).
Bad fat arse syndrome: Most of us with pretty basic feminist understandings, know that there are no “perfect” bodies, just billion dollar advertising campaigns. Mass global marketing ideals to aspire to, via consumption, and to maintain and control power via imaging and (mis) representation. However, no matter how much we know this, we still have the odd second, minute, hour, day, week etc, where we think we have a fat arse and think this is a “bad” thing, and wish we did look like supermodels and celebrities, even though we know they don’t really exist outside of photoshop.
This is to be expected due to the constant barrage and thick saturation in almost everywhere, of messages to the contrary. That pretty and handsome people have more fun, are more successful. That it is of utmost importance to have a job, career, perfect job, partner, family, house, car, social life. That good people are pretty and handsome, don’t have depression (unless they are tortured artists or musos and then that’s OK), don’t ever feel negatively about their bodies. That if you’re fat, poor, or struggle with mental wellness, it’s your own fault and you’re just not trying hard enough.
Socialisation cannot simply be read, theorised, talked or argued away. It’s constant and un-ending. So a large part of living in this world and trying to struggle for things to be better, is learning how to live and manage that constant barrage of (often false and misleading) messages. No easy task..
Some of that is finding alternatives, other voices to the more dominating and noisy messages. Below are some ponderings about where and how mental health, mental wellness, is conceived, and thought of in society, the wellness of society, and what right society has to define who is unwell and who is served in those definitions.
Our Christian secular society (you have to have something to be secular with or from), is also largely medicalised in the way people and our health and wellbeing is viewed.
So we get sick not because God is smiting us down, or because we’ve broken a terrible taboo and are cursed, but because of bacteria, varying vitamin/nutrient levels or what have you.
Your kid isn’t simply a total brat, its just got ADHD or is autistic. Your kid isn’t simply a dunce, its dyslexic.
Differently abled people are not the results of the sins of a mother or family, but the unfortunate result of accidents (car crashes etc) or variances in genetics, chromosomes, and differently developing conditions (or agent orange, depleted uranium, nuclear exposure, drugs that pharmaceutical companies deem safe until they aren't).
Sounds great, at least much better than having to live with a whole village or town thinking you cursed God, or didn’t tithe enough to the Church and that’s why you get about in a wheelchair.
One framework that gets set up in this shift (which is now mostly most peoples’ norm), is the medical, or clinical model. So on one hand it’s great because no one thinks you’re visually impaired from wanking, but other complex systems have been set up for stigmatising and marginalising.
The criteria for dissing people out has changed.
The medical model sets itself up (like most things from the Euro-Christian-secular-colonial-imperial-capitalist-“democratic”-West) as objective, neutral, rational and normal. Which could probably be fine if there was even such a thing, but there isn’t.
What the medical model also does, is create, prop up and impose norms that are culturally specific ways of viewing the world, and people. It helps to validate and uphold a liberal (“ultimately the objective market decides”) and individualistic way of thinking, being and living which benefits different groups differently, often unequally.
There are Normal people and queers, Normal people and fat people, Normal people and old people, Ordinary Kiwi’s and Maori’s, migrants, ethnic, foreigners. Normal people and disabled people.
We focus on the “Others”, but not on who is considered normal, and why they are considered normal. The norm is not simply the norm, it is more that that, it is desirable, preferable, and must be policed, maintained and managed.
This way of thinking and seeing also creates negative stereotypes that prop up double standards. If a Maori person steals something they are a Maori person stealing. When pakeha person steals something, they are just a person stealing. When Chinese person drives badly, they are bad Asian drivers. When a paheka person drives badly, they are bad drivers. When queers hold hands or kiss in public they are putting it in peoples (straight peoples) faces. And when a straight couple do it, they aren’t putting it in anyones face, they’re just kissing and holding hands. When a fat person has a heart attack it’s because they are fat. When a slim person has a heart attack, it is unfortunate and slightly odd. When a woman is forthright and tells it like it is, she is a bitch (or she must be a feminist man hating lesbian). When a man is forthright and tells it like it is, he is assertive and a good leader.
There’s a frame of thought that goes along the lines, of “there are no disabilities that exist, rather society and its’ norms and policing, disable certain people and groups of people”. This is quite a different way of thinking about things.
So for example, buildings and houses get built with narrow corridors, no ramps, high up door handles; then we call people with canes, walking frames and wheelchairs, disabled.
We don’t provide subtitles and signers, and call people deaf. We make books and computer screens with little text and call people visually impaired.
Then there is Normal people and women’s issues, Normal people and queer issues. Normal art and women’s art, Normal writing and ethnic writing, Normal perspectives and indigenous perspectives.
While some of this is about demographics, expressing differences between majority and minority, notions of “new” and mainstream/traditional, other things happen also. Inherent power dynamics, stigmatisation, marginalisation and invisibilisation.
It’s a bit like saying “poor queers, they choose such a hard life”, without recognising that it is often non-queers that make life hard for queers. That it’s homophobia from non-queers, invisibilising, bullying, assumptions, mis-representation from non-queers that make life hard for queers. A lack of acknowledgement that the over-representation of queers in negative statistics flourish in environments created and maintained by non-queer cultures.
So what a liberal-individual-medicalised framework in society creates, is that the people who have parts of themselves considered abnormal, are merely unfortunate, and “Normal” society doesn't need to take responsibility for how they create and maintain those environments.
But it’s not just left at that. Because Normal is good, right, desirable and preferable, the Normal people have to make/’Help” the abnormal people become Normal, and the abnormal people are expected to want to become Normal, or as Normal as physical possible.
So before I pop back to mental health, the basis I’m coming from is one of norms get set up that are ethnic, culture, gender, class, body size, notions of beauty, language, history bias. These bias norms and the parts of people considered normal, do not acknowledge this bias. And then they do not acknowledge the often negative impact they have on peoples outside their constructed and bias norms.
I think this is stink, as it maintains inequalities that impacts negatively on people outside the norm, and makes them think they’re either at fault, or they just have to put up with discrimination around something that is no-ones fault.
The concept of health is structured around norms that are culturally specific, and have their own motives, and are always bias in someway. And that’s why I’ve tried to explain how I feel and see norms operating on different people for different reasons.
So in some times, spaces and cultures, fat people are considered healthy, and skinny people unhealthy, and vice versa. Sometimes blond hair and pale skin is an indicator of serious malnutrition and anemia, and sometimes, just that someone has Scandinavian ancestry.
But what about the stuff we can’t see easily. Like mental health.
Being psychotic from a medical perspective (one in which most of our society takes seriously) is when a person does not have a “normal” response to a situation, behaviour or action.
This might usually make sense when there’s some guy killing people for wearing orange, or someone who tries to beat people up for using a wrong tense of verb. But take any of this wider, or beyond the individual, and it’s sometimes ok.
Killing people is ok if you wear a uniform, and kill other people who also wear a uniform (whether that uniform is a skin colour, religion or belief). Beating people for using the wrong words is ok if its part of a paternalising benevolent colonial proselytising mission and enough of “you” want Maori and Greek kids to speak English.
But again to mental health which is hard to see. If being psychotic is the “wrong” response to a situation, what if the “wrong” response for a little boy being told not to cry when he’s hurt himself, is to try not to cry? Isn’t crying when you’re hurt “normal”. Could it not be seen as “psychotic” to tell someone to do something not Normal and expected? Like crying if you’ve hurt yourself?
Or further than that, questioning why crying is or isn’t “Normal” (socially acceptable) for some genders and not others, some ages and not others, some circumstances and not others.
I think there’s lots of “normal” things that are wrong, and detrimental to people if we try to believe in them.
I would go as far as to say, that mental un-wellness could be seen as a “normal” response to living in an unjust society that often sends us self-hating messages all the time; that we are not slim and toned enough, not beautiful enough; that all our self worth is based on what job we have, how much we earn, whether we are “proper” men and women; that we have to buy stuff to prove to ourselves we are “free to choose”; that our person hood and self-worth can be reduced to a monetary figure; that there are no sentient beings except humans; that destruction of the earth, inequality, oppression, destitution is inevitable, necessary even for some people so we can have our standard of living that is constantly under threat from terrorists and foreigners who threaten the “fragile economy”.
I would venture that feeling anxious, deep sadness and anger, are “normal” responses to separation from self-sustaining connected living; being told to forget what happened to our ancestors, or that it never really happened, or it wasn’t that bad; having amnesia about how our ancestors got here and what they did to remain here and live well. Normal and expected responses to ignoring the exploitation that goes into the many many essential things we buy; to living with and or perpetuating or remaining silent and ambivalent about homophobia, racism, transphobia, exploitation, body hatred and discrimination. Expected responses to living in a white-centric, male dominated, hetero-centric, body policing, polluting, profit obsessed, environment destroying, spiritually bereft colonised nation hell bent on forgetting its shameful past.
I would suggest that mental, emotional, spiritual un-wellness could be a “normal” and expected, even “healthy” unrepressed response to living with consciousness and awareness in our psychotic society.
We are made unwell by living within an unhealthy society. That is “normal” and expected I think.
It’s not a coincidence that levels of clinical anxiety rise along side a country’s development status. It’s not a coincidence that women suffer from more eating problems and food allergies than men, when it’s women’s bodies that are policed, looked at, targeted by fat-loss propaganda, and evaluated more than mens. It’s not a coincidence that queers are over-represented in negative stats like suicide, self-harm, mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency when we are bullied more in schools, we risk violence, being ostracisied and discriminated against when we come out, and we have to struggle against a huge wave of Good, Normal and Desirable equalling Straight.
It’s not a coincidence that Maori people die sooner than non-Maori in a country that was theirs and then stolen, and are now marginalised within it, with the colonisers descendants pretending and wanting to believe it never happened. It’s all good now, we’re all New Zealanders now.
There is huge difference, diversity and variance in humans, in the way we think, act, love, speak, express, metabolise food, distribute weight and fat, respond, are capable of and physically appear. And for very good and logical reasons. Biology or Mother Nature, has always tended itself to making a whole range of different stuff so someone is always prepared for anything.
It is human cultures, human groupings, human societies that create the norms and standards in which disabilities and un-health is defined. And we are all diminished because of it.
So if those are some of the problems, then where can we go from there? It’s possibly one of perception. Looking for new paths, rather than cures.
What if, despite the heavy burden, and despairing weight of depression, we didn’t view it as a personal sickness, as something one has to learn to deal with, manage, cope with on their own. What if it wasn’t even seen as an illness, what if, despite how difficult it is on the heart and soul, we didn’t even see it as negative or undesirable. What if it just was. What if, back in the day, people who had visions and powers the Church couldn’t explain, weren't burnt as witches. What if, people who hear voices, or have many beings in their one body, weren’t considered psychotic, schizophrenic or multiple-personalitied . What if they weren’t considered lucky, as it is often a heavy thing to bear, it simply was. Just a thing. Just a difference.
What if we saw it as simply connectedness. Connectedness. Empathy even. People who are trusted with the task to feel. Feel empathy for those who suffer injustice, hunger, destitution. To feel destruction of the environment that sustains us. Connectedness to be able to feel the hardships, pains, despair of the society we live in who like to ignore such feelings, and the peoples who experience them.
It wouldn’t make depression and mental illness any less severe in its day to day burden, but it might help make it that bit easier to bear.