Fighting stigma

Image by: Alex Choi

Mental illness stigma has been at the centre of frequent and ongoing dialogue at Queen’s.

With the creation of the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health and the anti-stigma research chair position and the work of a number of student-led initiatives, it’s become a priority on our campus.

I’m grateful for the dialogue, but I wish it didn’t so often portray stigma as an abstract, intangible concept rather than a very real method of oppression. Stigma is bad, we’re told, but we rarely explore how it’s used or exactly what its effects are.

In my years-long battle with depression and anxiety, I’ve hit many low points both in my emotional well-being and my dignity.

One of the biggest blows to the latter came when I was in my first year at Queen’s, in the midst of what was then my worst depressive episode to date. I hadn’t been thinking rationally and I’d let an essay slip by, along with all of my other obligations.

My TA had already agreed to mark the paper, but I was still prepared for the professor to say no when I brought him my counsellor-signed request for an extension.

What I hadn’t been prepared for was his disgust, and him telling me I couldn’t expect to last in university looking for “special treatment” like that. I didn’t tell him he was wrong because I wasn’t sure that he was.

The professor ultimately let me submit the paper, but I held onto his words for years, playing them over in my mind whenever I had to shamefully ask for “special treatment” to accommodate my illness.

I also remembered the words of friends who told me they thought people with mental illness should just stop “whining about their problems.” I’d been made to feel ashamed, and that shame often prevented me from seeking the help I so badly needed.

The root of these feelings was the thing we’ve all heard so much about: stigma.

The way we talk about stigma reminds me of something novelist Teju Cole wrote in a March essay in The Atlantic.

In the essay, he notes that although we’re talking more about issues like racism, misogyny and homophobia, we’re still hesitant to actually call anyone racist, misogynistic or homophobic.

But oppression can’t exist without oppressors, just as stigma can’t exist without stigmatizers.

If we’re going to continue this dialogue on stigma, we need to stop being afraid of calling it out when we see it.

Accusing someone of stigmatizing may cause hurt feelings, but the risks of its continued perpetration are far greater.

Holly is the News Editor at the Journal.


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