The Stories That We Tell Ourselves

Yesterday’s Guardian contained an article by Eva Wiseman exposing the difference between critics’ descriptions of male and female departures from the mainstream: what in a male artist might be termed insight or genius is often labelled quirkiness when displayed by a female artist. While I don’t agree with the gender binary, I definitely agree there is a bias here: between the worthy expression of suffering in the traditional voice of the literary white male and the unvalued expression of suffering in the many voices of the other, whether literary, white, male, or otherwise. A bias that not only supports privileges but also damages mental health.

Dividing the expression of the self into two voices, artistic and not, implies that revealing suffering should take into account how it will make the audience feel. That there are acceptable ways of being imperfect or troubled.

One of Wiseman’s especial targets, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, illustrates this perfectly: the archetype is light entertainment, their brilliance hobbled not by a need to overcome real obstacles but by the needs of the hero to have a kooky supporting cast. The contrasting archetypes for anyone other than the hero are insane villains and prickly obstacles. Even those troubled individuals who do achieve a positive outcome, achieve it more often through relinquishing their socially unusual traits than through their own agency or the genuine support of others.

If physical diseases were treated like mental illness
Copyright unknown – sourced via @stephenfry


Institutional validation of one group’s viewpoint over another is rarely a good thing, but in the case of mental health assigning the categories of legitimate, comic, and other is particularly harmful.

Similarly, defining appropriate responses from others to mental health issues as enjoy the light entertainment, overcome the obstacle, or wait for them to snap out of it, programs those who do not examine their own behaviour to reject calls for aid and dis-empowers those who do seek to help.

Viewed from an individual perspective, mental health issues are something that cannot simply be overcome; something that is not comic or evil. What to the outsider might seem illogical is to the person who experiences it not susceptible to logic.

Viewed from a social perspective, mental health issues are a construct; perceptions and behaviours that are inappropriate due to context not any inherent value. What in the lighthouse keeper is an ability to be happy in his own company is in a débutante social anxiety. What in a conscript is defending the nation is in a civil rights activist homicidal mania.

By dividing expressions of self into valuable and other, respected and patronised, genius and quirky, we not only damage society, we train those facing mental health issues (both as experiencer and onlooker) that the comfort of the onlooker is more important than the pain of the experiencer, that the method of seeking help is more important than the help itself, that we are either experiencer and onlooker.

Please read some other perspectives on mental health:

A Messy, Chaotic, Public Life (Miriam Joy Writes)
Blog For Mental Health 2015 (MaggieMayJustSayThis)

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