6 Things Feminists With Mental Illness Want You To Know
I am a feminist, and I am mentally ill. The two aren't really related on the surface, but when it comes to sexist responses to irrational women, strange ideas about weak female brains, and research that shows that, yes, sexism does stress women the hell out, it seems the relationship is deeper than it might appear. I'm not claiming, in any way, that sexism or misogyny have been responsible for my own particular blend of mental illness (depression and PTSD); that's largely due to some genetic predisposition and a very strange family situation. But women's illness is a feminist issue. Particularly when people start going "eh, she's crazy." Oh no you did not.
If you ever did an undergraduate unit on The Yellow Wallpaper, the famous story about domestic femininity and insanity by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, you may have gotten a glimmer of the potential relationship between women's mental health and sexism. But for many of us, it may just be an occasional sense that being a woman with a mental health issue leaves us open to some strange comments. Or it may never occur to us at all.
But just in case, here are six things we'd like you to know, if you're getting strange ideas about the seriousness of female mental health, whether we're all just irrational emotional hell-demons, and whether all feminists are insane and paranoid about patriarchy and sexist annoyance.
1. No, You Cannot Call Us "Crazy"
The stereotype of the "crazy" woman is hardly new. It's been hanging around for centuries in Western culture, from the madwomen of London's infamous "Bedlam" mental hospital to literary figures like the insane wife in the attic in Jane Eyre. And yep, it's sexist as hell. Tarring every woman with a mental illness with the crazy brush, or just lumping us in with any person of the female persuasion who's perceived to act irrationally or just in a way you don't like, is archaic and silly. We deserve nuanced, informed responses to our disease, not labels that target some imagined "irrational" aspect of our gender.
2. No, Feminism Is Not A Mental Illness
I can't believe I'm even having to say this one, but you'd be surprised how many men's rights activists seem intent on proving it to me. No, my "real problem" is not that I believe in the fundamental equality of women and our right to access, power, political empowerment, wealth, and engagement on a level platform. No, I do not have a screw loose because I "hallucinate" that patriarchy and gender discrimination exist and cause genuine problems. No, I am not delusional or suffering from a persecution complex about men. Yes, I am quite sure.
3. No, I'm Not Mentally Ill Because Women Have Weaker Brains
We're only beginning to uncover the possibilities of gender difference in neuroscience, but it remains astoundingly clear that the long-standing belief that women's brains were easily overtaxed and shouldn't be bothered with too much heavy stuff, or else they'd explode, is definitely not true. Women may have a gender predisposition to certain mental health issues, such as depression, but it's deeply unclear whether that's a preexisting problem or whether it's created or exacerbated by the serious challenges and stresses faced by women. The notion that I am mentally ill because of inherent womanly weakness is not only wrong, it's deeply insulting.
4. No, I'm Not Making It Up Because I'm "Over-Emotional" Or "Dramatic"
On the other side of the "weaker brains" coin is the perception that women exaggerate. An astonishing Atlantic piece in 2015 hammered home the very real problem that emergency room staff and doctors, of both genders, seem to undervalue and disbelieve women's reports of pain and distress; the prevailing belief appears to be that we are, as a gender, hormonal, irrational, and unable to express ourselves with reasonable accuracy.
It's part of an age-old dichotomy between the chaotic, emotional woman and the ordered, reasonable man, and it still holds very true: studies have shown that both women and men consistently rate male responses and actions as more competent, rational, and professional than female ones. It's an illusion, but a very powerful one. (For instance, women are more rational when it comes to money in romantic situations than men.) Psychology Today also points out that the idea that emotion is somehow inferior to rational thought is actually societally created, too. In short: the mad, weepy woman whose opinion of her own state should be discounted is a fiction.
5. Yes, Sexism Can Make Things Worse
Being the direct or indirect subject of misogyny and sexism is, it turns out, very bad for a woman's mental health, which will surprise absolutely nobody who's ever had to run home in terror because a dude decided to follow them. In January 2015, feminist columnist and all-round goddess Jessica Valenti covered a particularly interesting piece of research for the Guardian: a study from the University of Missouri-Kansas City had revealed that women's encounters with daily sexism made them more anxious and full of fear, and raise their vulnerability for developing a mental illness. And it's much worse for women of color.
Dr. Watson, one of the researchers on the project, told Valenti that "over time, existing in a state of hyper-vigilance has a negative impact, and leads to a higher level of psychological distress". And a 2010 study found that even just witnessing an episode of sexism, without being the target, made a big impact on women's attitudes, angers, and fears. So directly or indirectly, sexism is bad for our brains.
6. Yes, The Patriarchy Forms Part Of Our Mental Health Problems
Misogyny informs mental health problems in women in several ways. For one, there's the reported difficulty of sexism in mental health treatment; a Harvard professor, Dr. Paula Kaplan, wrote for Psychology Today that sexist thinking about women's mental health has sometimes led to misdiagnosis, shaming, and other issues. Mental health professionals are human, and subject to human biases. Another method of sexist damage is that women are under immense societal pressure via gender-enforced roles, and that can cause severe emotional damage.
In an interview with Bustle last year, Professor Daniel Freeman, an Oxford University specialist in women's mental health, told me: "Increasingly, women are expected to function as carer, homemaker, and breadwinner — all while being perfectly shaped and impeccably dressed —while having less reward and control. Given that domestic work is undervalued, and considering that women tend to be paid less, find it harder to advance in a career, have to juggle multiple roles, and are bombarded with images of apparent female ‘perfection,’ it would be surprising if there weren’t some emotional cost."
This is not to say that men don't have severe mental health issues too, or that patriarchy contributes to them (lack of emotional expression in men, which is discouraged as "not manly," likely contributes to the high rates of male suicide). But it's important to realize that sexist, biased responses to women's mental health are unacceptable. We've got enough to deal with.
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