Commentary: Being supportive is knowing when to shut up

Warning: This story contains graphic content about sexual assault, mental illness and abuse that may disturb some readers. 

I remember the first time I went to an event aimed at reducing rape culture on campus. As the expert started to talk, two first-year boys in the back started talking over her and proposing their own solutions of “men stepping forward” and “protecting the girls on campus.” Their overzealous attempt to be a part of the solution showcased their sexism. They were so caught up in helping the cause that they forgot to actually listen on how to help.

As someone living with multiple mental illnesses – post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder and depression (just to name a few), I feel like this attitude is how I have seen many react to the mental health crisis on campuses. I fully support more funding for mental health and more conversation about mental health and illnesses, I especially loved the new movement called Student’s Let’s Act spearheaded by Emma Walsh, the St. Thomas University Students’ Union and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Bell Let’s Talk Day just passed, and with it came a huge wave of what St. Thomas University is especially bad at: overzealousness.

Now before I go any further I want to clarify. As with any other group, oppressed or not – my opinions do not reflect the opinion of every person living with mental illness. 

It happens with every group, some outsider on an issue – say a white person passionate about Black Lives Matter, a straight ally passionate about the LGBTQ community or as stated above, a male passionate about rape culture and feminism – feels like they need to step up and solve these issues. These allies are important, drastically so – we could not do movements without them. However, when issues drastically impact one group that you are not apart of, say a neurotypical person on mental illness, you should first shut up and listen.

Mental health issues and mental illness are two drastically different concepts. It’s like comparing having a bad cough to having cystic fibrosis, or having a high blood sugar to having diabetes. Similar concepts yet we’re comparing apples to oranges. This comparison is not to make light of those illnesses – those are very serious illnesses that require multiple life changes and medications as well as occasionally physical therapy. It is instead to showcase how serious mental illness can and often is. Mental health issues require support and are often short term, mental illness requires serious interventions and can last the rest of your life. So the supportive often sappy sounding shit people post on Bell Let’s Talk Day is perfect for someone going through a rough time in their life, not for people living with a serious mental illness. 

The idea of mental illness affecting us all is not the same as living with a mental illness, and the universality of this claim makes it so that the voices of people with mental illness are lost under all the voices of people talking about their own personal crises. Feeling emotions and stress in a certain portion of your life is not the same as having a mental illness. If this sounds vague to you, think about it this way: imagine subjecting anything instead of mental illness, say ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ or ‘homophobia’ affects us all. Now you sound like your prejudiced great uncle, don’t you?

The fact is, while these stigmas and prejudices hurt society, they specifically target one group of people. Being biased against is not the same as the stigma built into our society. Having a mental health issue is not and will never be the same as having a mental illness. Certainly they can build on each other, but they are not interchangeable.

You do not understand what I’m going through when I have breakdowns because of your mental health crisis a while back. Please stop trying to say that you do.

My mental illnesses were partly due to genetics and partly due to an abusive upbringing coupled with bullying and parental issues. I can’t watch certain forms of media because it sets off a panic attack or a flashback where I am put back into the situation I would never wish on my worst enemy. I have days I can’t get out of bed and force myself to throw up so I can claim that I am sick and unable to go to classes. I have days where I am angry all day at everyone and cannot be around people without destroying relationships I have worked years on maintaining. I go on shopping binges where I spend all my money on subscriptions I don’t use and other products I don’t remember buying. And no matter how much I work on my mental health there’s always a voice in the back of my mind urging me to binge eat, to cut, to purge, or to attempt suicide. Always. It never goes away – you just become strong enough to combat it. The world to me is not a safe place. It is dark and scary and cruel. My world is shaped by my mental illness and it’s not a nice world.

Maybe all this sounds extremely biased and mean and cynical because that’s what living with a mental illness can do to you. Having the shitty genes or life before to give you a mental illness sucks, living with one sucks, and sometimes it’s hard to live, even though it’s so worth it to keep trying. It’s not that you can’t be supportive if you don’t suffer from mental illness. But to be supportive you need to know when to shut up and listen to those who experience it every day, because mental illness does not impact us all, at least not equally.