The stigma of mental illness has many negative consequences, such as decreased access to employment and housing, barriers to seeking treatment, and many broken friendships and relationships.
What it also does, unfortunately, is make it much harder for people who’ve suffered from mental illness to speak about it publicly, using their real names.
I’ve been thinking about this because North by Northwestern, our campus magazine, ran a feature in its spring issue about mental illness at Northwestern. Overall, the piece was great and discussed how our academic system may be contributing to unhealthy levels of stress. The author of the piece interviewed two students who spoke about their experiences with depression and anxiety.
But both of the students’ names were changed for the article, and it bothered me.
For the record, I would never begrudge an individual for choosing to speak about his or her mental illness under a pseudonym. We all have different priorities, and not everyone has decided to spend their life advocating for those with mental illnesses (as, for instance, I have). Even those who do may decide that using a pseudonym is in their best interest–for instance, this blogger whom I greatly respect.
The magazine, however, could have chosen to find sources who would be willing to let their real names be printed. I know it could’ve, because those people exist on our campus. I’m one of them. Many of my friends are, too.
This is important for several reasons, some short-term and some long-term.
The short-term reason is that seeing fellow students speak publicly about their experiences with mental illness can make a huge difference in the life of someone who’s just starting to acknowledge and deal with their own illness. It lets them know they’re not alone and gives them hope for the future.
It can also give them a specific person to reach out to. After I started writing about depression, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers started writing to me, sharing their stories, and asking for advice. I heard from friends that I knew were struggling and friends who seemed to have everything together. I heard from a guy who’d told me once that he’d had depression briefly but pulled himself out of it on his own. I felt humbled to know the truth.
A friend of mine who spoke in a panel about her eating disorder once told me that she had the same experience. She was quoted in an article about the panel, and afterwards people reached out to her about it.
There’s a bigger picture, though, as well. Every time someone “goes public” about a mental illness, they chip away at the culture of secrecy that surrounds it. And the more of us do it, the harder it’ll be to deny us jobs, cut off friendships with us, continue believing that we’re weak and lazy, and be ashamed of us.
I’m glad those two students spoke to NBN, and I know it was hard for them to do even knowing that their names would not be in print. But NBN had a chance to do something really important, and they missed that chance.
As I was writing this post, I found out that there’s someone pretty powerful who recently took that chance. During his speech for people who have lost family members in the military, Vice President Biden talked about the deaths of his wife and daughter in 1972. Then, he said, “I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here, but it’s more important–you’re more important.” Then he went on:
For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, but because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.
In his seminal book on depression, The Noonday Demon (which I have coincidentally just finished reading), Andrew Solomon intentionally avoids using pseudonyms whenever possible. On the first page of the book, he writes,
I asked my subjects to allow me to use their actual names, because real names lend authority to real stories. In a book one of the aims of which is to remove the burden of stigma from mental illness, it is important not to play to that stigma by hiding the identities of depressed people.
I believe that when writing about mental illness, one must be cautious of the status quo. With regards to mental illness, as with regards to just about everything else, the status quo can be a dangerous thing. You cannot think and write about the tragedy of mental illness without also acknowledging the tragedy of stigma, which pushes so many of us to stay silent for too long. In my case, it was eight years. For others, it’s a lifetime.
Accepting the use of pseudonyms in one’s work just because that’s what’s always been done, or because finding interview subjects who are willing to use their real names might be difficult, does an injustice to everyone who suffers from the continuing presence of stigma.