I Do Good At School, My Life Must Be Easy
What does it mean to be ableist? What does it mean to have prejudice against mental health? Oftentimes, people view these kinds of labels as “PC gone too far”, and they suspect that we really don’t discriminate against those people who have physical or mental illnesses. I can’t address the full complexity of these issues in a single blog post, but I’d like to bring some of my own experiences to bear on the issue. When people look at me they see someone who is white, cis-gendered, straight, educated, and upper middle class. Privilege coming out of my ears. How on earth am I discriminated against? How do other people have privilege over me? I have an invisible kind of an illness. That’s what all mental illnesses are (with the exception of certain ones that come with tics or facial cues like Tourette’s). But how does this affect me? I struggle, but how does other people’s ignorance make my life harder?
My life looks pretty good from the outside, especially my academic life. Often people are jealous of how well I do in school, they tease me when I’m anxious or worried about school because I blow things out of proportion. They laugh at me when I’m upset over a B. Things appear to come easily to me. I don’t study as much as many other people I know, I don’t spend as much time on my homework, and I rarely have difficulty writing or speaking in class. I suspect many people who read this blog have had a similar experience, since generally skeptics draw a pretty academic crowd. Because I am labelled as “smart”, my problems are ignored, and I’m expected to never complain. What people don’t understand is that, despite my appearances of privilege and intelligence, school is extremely difficult for me. Life is extremely difficult for me. I suspect this is true of a lot more “smart” people than we know. When you’re perceptive, the world can be a lot more difficult to deal with.
This assumption that I don’t need help or support because I look successful is part of why it is important to recognize the privilege of mental health. It may look like I do well in school without difficulty, but in reality I have constant anxiety over my school work. Already today I have made at least 4 different schedules for what I want and need to accomplish today, writing and rewriting my plan because I don’t know if I will be able to accomplish everything I feel I need to. I constantly feel as if I’ve fallen behind, even when I’m ahead on my homework. Because of my depression and eating disorder, I spend a good deal of my time incapable of thinking of anything but worry and food, and getting enough calories in my body to focus is a struggle. This is the price I pay for looking successful. My anxiety skyrockets when school starts, but because of the constant adrenaline and fear, I accomplish a great deal. In order to cope with that anxiety, I fall to things like restricting my food intake and self harm. Again, I suspect there are a great number of intelligent, successful people that have to use bad coping mechanisms to make their lives look easy. For those who don’t, that is a privilege.
The fact that I am ridiculed for complaining, expected to continue to achieve at or above my current level, and dismissed when I’m struggling is part of why we need to recognize the privileges of mental health. When someone has physical health problems, accommodations are made. People are sympathetic, willing to help. However because my problems stem from my mental health, I am afraid to tell anyone about them. I have told a single teacher or professor in my entire life that I struggle with depression and an eating disorder, despite the fact that my inability to concentrate, remember, and stay awake has directly impacted my school work. In order to address these problems, I believe we need to bring things like mental illness into public awareness. Many people who appear successful push themselves out of a fear of failure, a deep anxiety. If we can open up about this, achievement may become a more positive thing for the people who are doing it, instead of simply a milestone along the path of endless milestones that never stop asking you for more. It’s been well documented that there is stigma and shame around mental illness, and this contributes to the suffering of those affected. I believe that our attitudes towards success, and the willful ways we ignore those who don’t fall into traditionally “under privileged” groups are part of this. That is ableism for me.