I have a membership at a rock climbing gym, and I’m usually there at least a couple of times a week. As a result I’ve become known to most of the staff, although not always for my climbing unfortunately.
I frequently use my To Write Love On Her Arms t-shirts as climbing attire, and no one’s ever commented on them. But I guess that doesn’t mean that no one noticed them.
I made friends with one of the staff members, and one day after talking about my experiences with mental illness, he confessed to me that one of his coworkers had said something about me that was less than sensitive, long before we had become friends.
“Yo, she’s a cutter eh?” His coworker said one day, gesturing to my outfit. “She’s always wearing those shirts.”
My friend informed him that this meant nothing and that as far as he knew I wasn’t covered in scars (this was a fair assumption considering that I was fond of prancing around in tiny shorts and tank tops in the summer, although of course that doesn’t mean anything either).
I think it’s interesting that he clearly knew what To Write Love On Her Arms is (sort of – they cover much more than just self-harm) but would still say something as judgmental as that.
Creating awareness does NOT automatically mean eradicating stigma or even providing the right education.
Personally, I’d be okay with someone wondering whether or not I’d experienced a mental health concern if they saw me wearing one of those shirts. I’d even be okay with it if someone came up and asked me about it in a respectful way (for example: “What does that organization mean to you?”).
What I think is stigmatizing about this particular interaction is, well, the lack of actual interaction. Assuming you know what someone has experienced is never cool. Mental health is never simple. It’s not as simple as shirt = cutting, or even scars = cutting.
The truth is that I wear the shirts not for me but for my high school boyfriend. Back then, I knew nothing about mental health. I didn’t even hear that term until I was 16. He self-harmed and I was the only one he would talk to about it. To Write Love On Her Arms was the first organization I found that helped, so they will always have a special place in my heart.
But this guy wasn’t really interested in knowing that. If he was, he would have asked. Instead, he chose to gossip about me to his friend.
I think that we’ve made a decent amount of progress on the mental health AWARENESS front. It’s extremely rare now that I meet someone who doesn’t know what mental health is. I do think that mental health LITERACY needs to be improved, because there’s still a lot of confusion regarding what exactly different disorders are and some of the more specific terminology.
But mostly what we need to work on is empathy.
You can teach me about math all you want, but you’re never going to make me have any positive feelings towards math unless you tell me WHY math is important, because quite frankly that is not immediately apparent to me.
Mental health education is very similar. This is why I am such a big believer in using people with lived experience to educate others. It’s hard to listen to someone pour their heart out to you and then feel nothing.
It’s also empowering for us – last week I got to speak to 400 teenagers about mental health, including my own experiences, and there aren’t many better feelings than the one I got standing on that stage.
I’m in the process of creating workshops for kids in grades 6-8 to teach them about mental health, resilience, and empathy and I’m trying to keep this in mind while I’m doing it.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter how much awareness and education you think you have, never assume. Asking questions is sometimes okay if you do it right. And we’re not obligated to answer anything, but know that if you choose to, that could make a huge difference in changing someone’s perspective.
And most of all: the battle isn’t over yet. Awareness does not equal empathy.
Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 23 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie and her roommate.