As a cisgendered, melanin-lacking, imperfect female I’m often considered to have privilege and thus not to be worth listening to on any topic you care to mention. Apparently, and without irony, because society is designed to cater to my every whim – not that it feels that way. However, there is at least one arena in which I can be considered an oppressed minority and that’s the arena of mental health. I’m not neurotypical.
OK, I prefer to speak straightforwardly and I can’t keep that up for much longer, so let’s cut to the chase.
I am mentally ill, if functional, in that I suffer from moderate to severe depression. Having inadvertently seen my doctor’s notes I know that I’m on record as being much more at the severe end. This doesn’t mean I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs, just that my brain is broken in such a way that I have an incredibly low self image (resistant to outside reinforcement and support), have trouble experiencing joy and happiness, have a naturally quite pessimistic outlook and am frequently indescribably miserable and unmotivated for no reason that makes sense to someone who hasn’t had a bout of depression. I have been depressed to the point of being suicidal a handful of times in my 37 years, though I’ve only been diagnosed and treated for a handful of years now.
Enter the controversy du jour in nerd circles. The Harley Quinn sexy-suicide competition.
Suddenly it’s not my whiteness, maleness, age, first-world geography or regrettable lack of obvious gender/sexuality minority status that’s important. It’s my broken brain and the fact I’ve been a victim of my own desperation (or rather, a ‘survivor’).
This is a fucking weird experience.
I’ve written about my depression but not so much from a position of authority but one of empathy and understanding. I’ve been there. I know what it feels like. This’ll pass, you just have to hold on. Tea and sympathy for other people feeling the same way. I’ve also written scenes of desperation and self-loathing in my stories, especially in the book that’s still in editing. In fiction, my experiences can lend writing about that sort of scene an authenticity and reality that improves the writing and draws the reader in. I’m not a huge believer in only writing what you know, but it can help.
The temptation is to thrust my mental illness into people’s faces while they’re talking about this, in a sort of vengeful ‘HAH! You have to listen to me now! I’m the victim! My opinion is the only one that counts!’ It’s also a rush to be in this position of… well, unlike claims of privilege made for being white/male/cis this genuinely does feel like privilege.
I’ve made a few comments here and there but I’ve also felt held back a bit. After all, my personal and deeply subjective experience creates bias in me and despite suffering from bouts of depression and having come to the point of suicide several times, that doesn’t actually make me an expert on the issue. I’m also uncomfortable with the way swinging the fact of my issues around like a club reduces me to that issue, rather than a whole person.
Personally I feel that I would rather have discussions and depictions of mental health issues out there in public, even poorly done, even comedic, even flippant. Anything to familiarise people with the issues, reduce the stigma and stop people feeling so isolated. In the few comments on this I have made people seem to have leant weight to my opinion simply because I’m a sufferer, not because I have made any particularly cogent argument.
So I stopped myself, took a deep breath and a step back and did a bit of research.
Turns out that the question of whether media depictions of suicide are helpful or harmful is still a bit up in the air. In factual media there is an effect, called the Werther effect, where information about methods of suicide or high profile cases (such as celebrities) lead to copycat suicides. With fictional media the effect is not so easy to discern and it’s unclear whether it has a genuine effect or not. It’s further unclear as to the effectiveness of media on de-stigmatising, provoking people to seek help, or directly helping them cope and find the resources to survive.
My opinion is now a bit better qualified due to reading up on genuine scientific research in the field and isn’t that much changed from what it was before. Still, I take a few lessons from this:
- It’s dangerous to lend too much weight to someone’s opinion because of their victim status.
- Victim status can be a more powerful and effective privilege than many others.
- Having this privilege is an addictive rush and it’s tempting to use it aggressively to shut people down.
- Having victim status can make people afraid to argue, even when you’re wrong or ill-informed.
- Knowledge trumps emotion.
For the record, I don’t see the problem with the Harley suicide competition thing, other than that it seems an odd and difficult topic to run a competition around.