Column: Stigma Free USC just reinforces stereotypes

This week the university is putting on their stigma free mental health week. When I heard, I was initially quite excited. Mental healthcare on campus is bad, as our editorial board noted. I was looking forward to a chance for an open discussion and awareness campaign about common mental illnesses like clinical depression and anxiety as well as some that are more heavily stigmatized in society, like personality disorders and schizophrenia.

As it turns out, that’s not what this is. At all. If anything it embraces the attitudes I would hope an event like this would serve to reject.

The official schedule of events includes things like stress balls, cooking, yoga, puppy petting and learning how to cope with stress. Almost none of it involves people with a mental illness talking about their life and mind. The primary purpose of it appears to be to avoid stress-based anxiety or depression. Anything else is quietly ignored.

The approach markets mental wellness as a consumer choice for the right-thinking individual and suggests that mental illness is a problem that just stems from the afflicted having the wrong attitude, diet or amount of puppies.

I have mental illnesses. I cope with them through lorikeets and fidget spinners, sure, but I also need medication and acceptance of what I can and cannot do in a given time frame.

So let’s take a moment and let a person dealing with mental disorders talk about the subject and how it personally affects their life, just like the university should have been doing the entire week.

On my worst days it takes me a lot of effort to get out of my room, get food and eat it. Sometimes I go a day or two without food or have to reason with myself for six hours just to get somewhere that has something I feel like eating. When I lived on campus that was often Russell House. And, for whatever reason, they seem to like playing “Scars to Your Beautiful” at least once an hour in there.

The song, for those who have somehow missed it, is about how thin girls with eating disorders need to accept that they’re pretty and just stop it already. It got a lot of praise for how progressive it was, but it ignores almost everything about what eating disorders are like in most cases. To start with, not all people with them are thin or even women. Some people have other body image issues or other disorders compounding the problem. Just accepting that you’re already pretty and don’t have to be stick thin is harder when other mental health problems or society at large just won’t let you accept the fact.

I fall into one of the latter categories. I have gender dysphoria, which is a whole separate story, but it makes me want to take any chance I can to control my body when there’s so little of it I can really affect. So not only does the song do nothing for me, but some of the very loud and prominent lines in the song are actively harmful. For instance, the lyrics include "'beauty is pain… [w]hat's a little bit of hunger? I can go a little while longer.'" When I hear that blared at me while starving, thinking irrationally and desperately trying to ignore my problems for 20 minutes I don’t really care how “progressive” the overall message is. I just get dragged back into my problems by hearing arguments I use in favor of not eating spoken aloud and that starvation does apparently lead to thinness. Usually if the song comes on and I haven’t eaten yet, I just leave and don’t eat for at least the next few hours.

Point is, I’ve had multiple panic attacks and hunger episodes triggered because of one song in one building by well-meaning people playing a well-meaning song by a well-meaning person and at least someone on campus can fix the problem.

Ideally, the point of a week destigmatizing mental health would be to put stories like that in the open. Events could let people know how hard having a mental disorder really is and the things they and the university can do to make them easier to cope with. At least they’d let people put a face to problems they only see in portrayed in the media on serial killers or thin, young, conventionally attractive white girls.

Nope. Instead all we have is an event aimed at neurotypical people to help them manage daily stresses while feeling oh-so-good about themselves because of how they’re helping to “destigmatize” mental health on campus. It’s insulting to me and perpetuates harmful stories about how mental health problems are characterized by a lack of yoga and stress balls, and not by panic attacks at two in the morning, wondering whether your thoughts make you less worthy as a person or staying in bed for days on end because you don’t know what could happen outside.

If you’re going to try and fail in a way that’s harmful to the people you want to help, either don’t try at all or let the people affected by the issue do the talking.

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