Commentary

The Margins of Mental Illness

“Crazy” has a particularly harsh connotation for me; I have a visceral reaction to the word, and its usage to describe girls is incredibly venomous on so many levels. It is particularly harmful when coming from somebody mentally stable or someone who is in a position of status and power, such as a male. When socially privileged individuals label someone as “crazy,” that judgment goes unquestioned by other students. The “crazy” phenomenon marginalizes and targets mentally ill girls, like myself.

I have been called “crazy” before. It seems to me that while girls are culturally given some room to express their emotions publicly, a limit is set for what is acceptable or “normal.” Often it seems that when girls on campus do anything deemed beyond the realm of “normal” mental function, an obscurely-drawn line, it is brushed off as “crazy.” Whether directed at a girl breaking down and crying in public or used to discount her argument, the word “crazy” is frequently used to describe the emotional displays of girls on campus.

Many students go on medical leaves of absence for mental health reasons at Andover. I feel that girls struggling with mental illnesses, however, are held to a far different standard than boys are when they leave and subsequently return to Andover. When a boy returns from a year of rehabilitation, he seems to be welcomed back with open arms. If he is kicked out, hoards of social media posts appear instantaneously, lamenting the loss to the school. Boys seem to be either glorified or martyrized on campus for abusing substances. Girls, however, come back from leave on the outskirts of social groups they were once part of. When a girl goes on medical leave due to mental illness, self-harm or even attempted suicide, social media tends to remain silent. Girls’ struggles are ignored and erased.

Boys, in some ways, might face a more insidious judgment, one that encourages unhealthy behavior when gender roles hold them to an impossible standard of hypermasculinity. While many girls in the past few years have stepped forward to discuss mental wellness, rarely do we see a similar acknowledgement of mental health issues for boys. Dangerous habits like substance abuse can be a symptom of depression, not to mention a mental disorder on its own.

While more women report and are treated for depression than men, this does not necessarily mean that more women suffer from depression than men. The difference in prevalence in men and women may not be accurate, as men are culturally encouraged to hide their emotions, which could result in fewer men reporting symptoms of depression to their health care providers.

Still, rather than recognizing the toxic hypermasculinity that plays into male substance abuse on campus, it is brushed off as this group of boys being “partiers” and “legends.”

All people struggling with mental health, regardless of their gender identity or status, need and deserve help. People who suffer from mental illness are not “crazy,” and the dangerous expressions of that mental illness, like drug and alcohol abuse, should not be celebrated, but rather treated. Getting help at Andover, however, can be more difficult in reality than it may seem on the surface. Even just recognizing mental illness is a struggle in itself, full of self-hate and denial. In addition, an attempt to get help for a friend can get that friend sent home. Other times, students may worry that they need to filter what they say to a counselor in order to avoid that same consequence.

Discourse about mental health and its underlying issues on campus need to expand beyond just students who struggle with mental illness and faculty working directly in student counseling. What Andover desperately needs is comprehensive mental health education as a way to bridge this gap. I am very excited about the new Rebecca M. Sykes Center as a way to potentially make comprehensive mental health care more accessible, but I still think that health care is only one facet of mental health that needs to be improved upon at this school.

No, I am not crazy. I am still waiting for our entire community to fully commit to supporting everyone with mental health issues.

Jan 29, 2016