Nicole Walsh has just finished her first year at King’s on the Liberal Arts degree, and is a KCL iFemSoc member.
The intersectional feminist community continues to strive to be inclusive for all, to debate on matters such as trigger warnings, race, class, gender identity and the effects of capitalism. However, one thing the left seems to fail at so often is protecting the disabled and in particular, those with invisible disabilities such as specific learning differences and mental health problems.
It is true that none of us hold the knowledge or answers to everything, but can only try and remain open-minded and respectful at all times. This however, does not excuse the fact that before we comment or make assumptions we should attempt to further educate ourselves on the matter in hand. One particular instance of this, was a conversation recently in our own iFeminist society.
People such as myself, who suffer from mental health problems continue to face a media onslaught of propaganda that props up the idea that we are violent, dangerous and not fit to be in society. Like other forms of oppression, the stigma and prejudice faced by those in my community has a long and dark history of asylums, torture, electrotherapy and lobotomies. Hundreds of people each day lose their lives because of their mental health problems and because they cannot receive the treatment that they need. In the majority of cases, these people lose their lives at their own hands: ‘There are about one million suicide deaths worldwide each year. During 2011, there were 6,045 suicides in the UK. The number of attempted suicides is much higher, with at least 140,000 attempted suicides each year in England and Wales’ (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Suicide/Pages/Causes.aspx)
In the UK today, there are current investigations into the number of people with mental illnesses who have had to spent time in distress in police cells. Still, people are being locked up because we do not have the services to treat them. Despite being a leading cause of death in the world, we continue to mistreat and misunderstand those who are suffering.
The conversation about mental health is one that many people struggle to have. It is surrounded by confusion and controversy and can be difficult to understand. This does not mean we should not spend the time making the effort to do so. What seems much easier for people to do, is discuss an individual’s mental health if we are able to dismiss them as ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’, the dangerous other that is nothing like ourselves but a risk to society. This is not a mistake made by one person, but something our media tells us it is ok to do by pushing poor journalism and research to the forefront of our available material.
The conversation in question was discussing Elliot Rodgers, the mass murderer who went on a misogynistic killing spree at UCSB. The details of the Rodgers’ case are well known and not necessary to discuss here. However, the vital part that came into question was Rodgers’ psychological state. It has been reported that Rodgers was seeing a psychiatrist. What has not been reported however, was his exact diagnosis. In fact his diagnosis has varied widely in public media, from Asperger’s Syndrome (which is a cognitive and communicative syndrome, and not a mental health problem), to a generalised personality disorder, to depression. What we can take from this is that currently no average member of the population, including any member of the feminist society knows exactly what mental health problem he had. We are all at risk of having poor mental health in our lifetime, just as we are at risk of having poor physical health in our lifetime. When we discuss an individual’s mental health without actually knowing what it was, we begin to delve into dangerous territory.
In the conversation in question, people began to discuss what insanity and sanity were and what a person of a ‘healthy mental disposition’ would or wouldn’t do. These comments are simply not acceptable in a safe environment that is supposed to be inclusive to all. To other members of the group, this shows a complete disrespect to those of us who suffer from mental health problems. It asks the questions, ‘what do you think of my mental disposition?’ and ‘what makes you an expert on mental health?’
Using generalisations such as the ones that were used in the conversation means that the elaborate complexities and history of mental health is completely disrespected and ignored. Not all mental illness is the same, not all mental illness can be treated in the same way and not all mental illness displays the same symptoms. These are facts that should be clear to anyone in the intersectional community. Yet they failed to be addressed properly until later in the conversation.
One of the most interesting comments, I believe, was offered by President of the society, Shanice. Shanice wrote that: ‘what’s more useful is referencing the conditions and environment that actually shapes a persons’ psychology and enables them to do what they do.’ In the same way that our physical health relies upon both nature and nurture our mental health does too. What I believe would have been more relevant to the society was to discuss the facts that we do know. The fact that whatever mental disposition Rodgers had, it collided and was built by the patriarchal society we have today. Rodgers was able to carry out his crimes because the levels of misogyny that we accept in society are dangerously high.
Shanice’s point however, goes much further than discussing Rodgers. When discussing mental health, we have to consider where one’s mental health comes from. When we do so, we are discussing a persons’ genetic makeup, family history and personal life events. To make this clearer, when we see mental disposition and mental health as debatable topics we do not consider the triggers we are risking members of our community.
Poor mental health is very often rooted in personal trauma. For many sufferers like myself, through talking therapies we find that the reason this personal trauma causes us so much distress is the guilt that we feel for it. When you debate the idea that someone who does not have a stable enough mental disposition for your liking or that someone’s mental health makes them a possible danger, you target that feeling of guilt inside us. You target every time we have doubted we are fit for this world and you open up every traumatic memory we have.
Let us not forget that this traumas will vary across intersectional boundaries and touch upon a huge number of memories and experiences. Whilst I understand that it was not the intention of anyone in the group to trigger anyone, I feel it is important that I make my point as clear as possible. I am one example of the many people who may have been adversely affected by that thread and similar conversations.
Through one conversations the guilt and shame I hold about my mental health was targeted. At the same time, my memories and experiences of being the child of an alcoholic, a victim of domestic violence, a victim of sexual abuse, a victim of biphobia, self-harm, suicide attempts, having to leave my family home, having manic episodes and much more all come flooding into my awareness in one huge trigger. These are just a few examples of the makeup of my own poor mental health. With one in four suffering from a mental health problem in their lifetime, debating mental health in this way in our feminist society facebook group alone means that you are risking approximately 198 people from being hit with the trigger of all of their lifetime experiences. This may seem extreme, but I feel it is necessary to recognise how many possible unknown triggers, life experiences and people you are affecting.
It is not acceptable to simply state that you know ‘they’re not all the same’ and to say that you’re not calling us all dangerous or violent. Intersectional feminism means that you recognise my trauma and the trauma of every survivor of mental health problems in our community and beyond. It means that you think before you speak, do your research and heavily consider who you may be affecting with what you say.
It means that when someone clearly states that they have been triggered by your actions, you do not dismiss their statement. It means that you recognise the power you have as an able person to continue the stigma that people with mental health problems have. It means that you understand that generalisations should not be made, that life and identity itself are complex and in depth. That each individual has their own view point, made up from a wide-range of experiences and that no person, whoever they are is the same as one person who’s wrong-doing has caught the media’s attention.
In my time in the KCL’s iFeminist Society I have seen many people make poorly judged comments. No one person is perfect and we all have the ability to make mistakes, I have definitely done it myself. I feel that the difference here is that the conversation became a series of similar comments and generalisations and that my rather upset ‘trigger warning’ statement was almost completely ignored. I would like to recognise and thank those who did apologise to me with the intention of rectifying their mistakes and those who sent me messages of support to ensure I was ok. I know that this is the usual behaviour I can trust to expect from our otherwise strong society. Which is why I recognise that the attitude towards my comments and the comments coming from others seemed to be one of naivety. It is sadly all too common for certain sections of intersectionality to be so poorly understood but it is important that as a group we recognise when these mistakes happen and learn how to move forward respectfully.