As I sit in my NYC studio apartment with a view overlooking Union Square Park, I am proud to live in a place that is so accepting of diversity. For the whole month of June, the areas I frequent in lower Manhattan have been inundated with rainbow symbols, flags, and displays showing support for the LGBTQ movement. I think this is great and would not want it any other way, yet a part of me is disappointed as I am reminded that some activist movements have made greater strides than others. Last month was Mental Health Awareness Month, but in no way was this embraced in the same way Pride Month is.
In 2016 approximately four percent of Americans identified as LGBTQ, whereas a much larger one in five adults deal with mental illness. Why is there more of a focus on Pride Month when more people are affected by mental health issues? Where are the banners displaying support for mental health? Where are the mental health t-shirts sold by mainstream companies, such as Target and Macy’s, like those for pride month? Why can’t we openly celebrate mental health awareness like we can LGBTQ acceptance? Or why can’t we at least talk about the intersection of LGBTQ identification and mental health issues?
When people look at me they see a white cisgender heterosexual able-bodied woman of middle-class wealth with the privilege of education. I am aware that I have many checks on the privilege list, but mental health is not one. Mental illness is not the same as many other forms of oppression and I by no means wish to equate it with racism or homophobia, but there is still very much a stigma surrounding mental illness that keeps this community on the margins of society. Mental illness is an invisible oppression that cannot be seen from the outside like race. Mental illness is overlooked by even the most well-intentioned, progressive people. It is a marginalized identity that holds millions back in life and creates inequality that needs to be acknowledged. Not only this, but activists preaching intersectionality also need to factor in mental illness as another layer of marginalization that can further racism, sexism, classicism and so on.
Mental health advocates are a plenty, as I have found them through the internet, but I have yet to see a larger awareness of understanding and educating people on mental health. The fact that we have a mental health month is progress, but what is the point if it is not being actively used to raise awareness?
It seems like the only real times mental health is widely discussed in mainstream media and the public is when a celebrity suicide occurs or there is a mass shooting. This is problematic because these should not be the only reasons mental health matters; it generalizes mental health issues in the wrong ways. Suicide should not only matter for people who are famous, it should matter ever single day for every single life taken, no matter how many people know their name. Mass shootings should not be automatically equated with mental health issues as there are many other explanations for this pervasive violence.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know I would love to see general awareness increase around mental health issues. I would love if May were a time that all people celebrated self-care. I would love it to be a time where those in recovery from mental illness can take pride in sharing their story. I would love it to be a time where companies and organizations show their support for mental health. I would love it to be a time where educational institutions read, write, and talk about the impact of mental health.
Pride month is a great celebration of all the progress that has been made in this country, but there is still so much more left for us to do as stigma fighters. It is a hard battle to fight when there are so many other important social justice movements during this divisive political time, but for those of us that have no choice other than to live a life of mental illness, we need to use whatever energy we can muster on a given day to fight back towards a society that wants to ignore and even shame our problems. Mental health matters and I will continue to say so as long as this issue is overlooked in many realms of public life. Mental health issues do not discriminate, but can be discriminated against. We all need to continue striving towards a more equal world, mental health awareness and access included.