As someone who’s recently started writing about their own depressive issues, the exchange interested me. As people with mental health concerns become more vocal, and more visible, it’s inevitable that they will also become more vocal about their disagreements. TheFerret doesn’t pull any punches in his criticism of Bray’s personal story. He calls out what he considers catering to a “Good Depressive Citizen” trope: the disingenuous tendency to write about depression in a way that distances it from yourself:
“write a Very Articulate Post detailing your pain…
…but do it from a distance. Write about it in a sad, somber tone. Do not evince an ounce of self-pity. Hold this odious disease at a distance. End it with a triumphant note that yes, you too can fight back!”
The pressure to keep silent about mental health problems is real, and the author of the above statement has every right to be angered by it. The tendency to try and distance oneself from something like mental health is a serious problem, and one of the reasons that so many people with treatable conditions don’t seek out the help they need. But my issue with this response lies mostly with how Libba Bray’s comments are criticized:
“Now, I’m not kidding, or being in the least sarcastic, when I say that Libba has written a wonderful post. That is part of what it’s like to be depressed, and she expresses it well, and eloquently. It helps, and I am glad she wrote it. But notice how carefully she speaks. She doesn’t say what, if anything, she is depressed about – and she’s a good enough writer that that omission is clearly on purpose.
Because she knows how to be a good depressive citizen.”
My initial reaction to that statement was a tirade of my own, which I’ll spare you. Not because the public must be protected from my feelings at all cost, but because anger, while valid and cathartic as it can be, is not always the most helpful response. What is helpful for people working through their mental health problems, is keeping the following in mind:
1: People set their own degree of disclosure.
Criticizing someone for not stating what’s triggered a specific mental health struggle (setting aside that triggers and episodes aren’t always reducible to one identifiable cause), is like criticizing an amputee for not wearing a sign explaining how they lost a limb. No one is entitled to know the details of your private life or health, and people reaching out for help don’t need to be subjected to some sort of litmus test for expressing their pain correctly.
2: Stigma is not the fault of the stigmatized.
A lot of the anger in the response to Bray’s post seems to be directed at her for being stigmatized. While the “Good Depressive Citizen” is a very real social pressure, someone who falls into it (and I’m not convinced Bray has), isn’t some sort of traitor to the rest of us; they are someone looking for a way to express something our culture doesn’t give us much practice or forgiveness for. It’s only to be expected that the attempt is awkward. The response to Bray seems to be confusing anger over the state of our culture with anger towards Bray for being caught in it.
3: Pain is always individual.
Having the same problem, health, personal, social, etc. doesn’t dictate that the experience is the same for everyone that has it; especially with mental health. People with depression may have a lot in common, they may fit the statistical profile, or they may be an outlier. Regardless, depression is always experienced individually. It’s always deeply personal, and it always requires a complex and individualized coping strategy. The idiosyncratic nature of mental health experiences is the reason we need different voices about it. We need to hear the anger and frustration just as much as we need to hear the hope for recovery. There is no “correct” way to express experience with depression, other than honestly; and choosing to be calm and articulate in order to do it isn’t a sign of dishonesty.
4: In-fighting never helps.
The issues listed in the response to Bray are real; there is little to no forgiveness for someone who publicly demonstrates their mental health problems. There is a lot of pressure to remain silent about them. There is an inexhaustible supply of judgment and ‘advice’ doled out to people dealing with their mental health. There is certainly a tendency to label people as ‘crazy’ or ‘unstable’ when they admit their own struggles. Those of us with mental health have enough trouble with people who expect us to justify our problems; we don’t need to attack each other over how we choose to deal with it. Instead of that, why not focus all that energy on making our culture safer for people to be open about their problems? Simply criticizing how someone chooses to express their own pain only contributes to the heaps of judgment already piled on top of them.