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Aug 31 2012

[In Brief] How to Talk About Mental Illness Recovery Without Shaming

Lucy Hale covers this month’s Cosmo.

Remember that post about celebrity gossip I just wrote? Well, here’s an example of how reading that stuff can be useful and enlightening.

I’m reading an interview in the September issue of Cosmo with Lucy Hale, a 23-year-old actress most known for her role on Pretty Little Liars, a guilty pleasure of mine. In the interview, Hale opens up (apparently for the first time) about the eating disorder she struggled with as a teenager:

But behind the scenes, Lucy developed a dangerous habit all too common among young starlets. ‘I’ve never really talked about this, but I would go days without eating. Or maybe I’d have some fruit and then go to the gym for three hours. I knew I had a problem,’ Lucy says of the issue that plagued her for two years. Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around. ‘It was a gradual process, but I changed myself,’ she says.

Except for the following paragraph, in which Hale talks about cutting damaging friendships out of her life, no other details are given about how she recovered from her eating disorder, and I won’t assume. However she did it, it’s awesome and she deserves to feel great about having accomplished that.

However, the Cosmo writer takes it a bit further with this sentence: “Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around.”

Wait…what? So people who succumb to the “downward slide” of eating disorders, or who need professional help to recover, just lack the “strength” that Hale has?

Obviously, I disagree.

If Hale really did recover without any professional help–which, again, she does not make that clear–there are many potential reasons for that. Perhaps she had a great support system of friends and family. Maybe she’s not genetically predisposed to eating disorders. Maybe her parents have healthy eating habits that they were able to model for her. She might’ve not had as serious a case as others do. Or perhaps she just got lucky.

None of this means that actresses who are “unable to escape the downward slide” have any less “strength” than Hale did. It means, probably, that they had different circumstances. Different lives.

So, how does one talk about people who have recovered from mental illness on their own without putting down those who cannot? My answer would be, by not comparing them to each other. Hale recovered? That’s awesome. Another actress didn’t? That’s a tragedy, and she deserves help and support. Their illnesses are not comparable, even if they happen to share the same name.

As Leo Tolstoy said, unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. Similarly, people who suffer from mental illness all do so in their own way. Just because one recovers and another does not doesn’t mean that one has more “strength” than the other.

P.S. Before anybody goes all “but it’s just Cosmo, who cares!”, Cosmo has a circulation of over 3 million in the United States and is also distributed in over 100 other countries in 32 languages. Readers of this blog probably think Cosmo is silly and not something to be taken seriously (which it’s not), but the truth is that many people around the world probably get most of their information about things like mental illness from media like this. So it’s definitely worth examining and critiquing.

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  1. 1
    John Watson

    How true. All of what you said.

  2. 2
    Paul

    The place that this blog post comes from is indicative of a core value that I (and probably many others) completely disagree with. I’ll have to share my story to explain. I’m not nearly the writer you are, so you’ll have to forgive the stream-of-consciousness quality.

    I’m an alcoholic. I quit drinking cold turkey and improved my diet substantially a few years ago. I felt good about my accomplishment. My life improved a great deal, and I felt strong. It was the first time in a long time that I truly felt I had developed the strength of character and conviction to overcome an addiction that had plagued me for a decade, and the place I came from was a dungeon of weakness. Unfortunately, I have ventured into the dungeon again, and so now I have a little bit more clarity about exactly what that strength and lack thereof really mean to me as a person.

    I believe that drawing a comparison is valid, because the circumstances, environment, luck, charity, etc., only contribute so much to someone’s overcoming their demons. A large part will always be attributable to someone’s confidence in themselves and their abilities, which I define in this context as “strength”. I displayed a great deal of strength escaping my demons and a lack of it by allowing them back in.

    You could respond to this in a few ways, and I’m curious which path you’ll take. You might view eating disorders as fundamentally different from alcoholism and as such should be treated with different language. I don’t believe that, but if you do, then I’d like to know why. You might think that I’m either delusional or misguided in thinking that I have displayed both strength and weakness and instead believe that my conquering and subsequently succumbing to my addiction are merely aspects of my circumstances, and if that’s the case, I would want to know how you define strength in this context and why mine is an illusion (that sounded really combative and I didn’t mean it to be, but I don’t know how else to word it). You might choose a path I haven’t thought of, and that would exciting.

    I honestly want to know your opinion, because I respect your ability as a writer and communicator, and I really love the blog. Even if we can’t agree on stuff, I appreciate your contribution to a mostly-bereft-of-logic internetscape.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      My take on that is very simple: the fact that your strength helped you overcome your illness at one point doesn’t mean that those who fail to overcome theirs lack strength. And, more importantly, it’s offensive and shaming to talk about those who have not recovered as “lacking” strength. Who knows what exactly “strength” is? Who knows how much of a role willpower plays in recovery? The most important thing to me is to be supportive to people who suffer from mental illnesses, and being supportive means not implying that the reason they are ill is because they lack strength.

      1. 2.1.1
        Titfortat

        The term ‘strength’ could mean different things also. Possibly just recognizing your support system could be part of your ‘strength’. Allowing yourself medication and therapy is also a form of strength. Like an Olympic athlete who trains for a weightlifting competition there are times they lack the strength to make the lift. That doesnt mean they wont gain it sometime in the future. :)

    2. 2.2
      sunshinesheep

      “I believe that drawing a comparison is valid, because the circumstances, environment, luck, charity, etc., only contribute so much to someone’s overcoming their demons. A large part will always be attributable to someone’s confidence in themselves and their abilities…”

      Someone’s confidence in themselves, or, more often, lack thereof, is frequently part of mental illness. Let’s take depression as a broad category. Someone who is very depressed may not have confidence in themselves, especially when it comes to getting through the illness. However, it is still possible to get through depression without such confidence (or this part of their strength). Lacking this confidence also does not mean that they are somehow worse or weaker or anything than someone who does have that confidence–different, yes, but not better or worse, stronger or weaker. In my opinion, comparisons like that are not helpful in most mental health situations. In fact, comparing people to others can actually worsen symptoms. Again with depression, if someone experiencing it is told that it is, essentially, their fault that they’re not getting better (because they lack that strength or whatever), their lack of confidence and overall sadness could easily get worse. It’s great that some people are able to pull themselves out of illness, but there’s no need to demean others in comparison. Mental illness is illness; one person with cancer isn’t better than another because they recover and the other doesn’t, right?

  3. 3
    Missy M.

    Wonderful piece! Thank you so much for writing this. Now, I think there’s something to be said for the need for those with mental health issues (and I’m one of those people) to accept some personal responsibility in….I’m not sure exactly what…recovery? Treatment? Seeking help? But to put it in terms of “strength” or weakness?” That’s damaging. Like you said, it depends on so many factors: brain chemistry, severity of the illness, support systems, financial and physical ability to get treatment, etc.

    I mean, I can talk about some of the things that I do to manage my mental illness, but those things are specific to me. Others have an entirely different approach that works for them. It doesn’t make me stronger or weaker or better or worse. Just different.

    1. 3.1
      Titfortat

      But to put it in terms of “strength” or weakness?” That’s damaging.(Missy)

      I respectfully disagree. I think it is a matter of interpretation. I see the comment about her “being strong” enough as an affirmation of what she accomplished. I do not see it as a negation for people that dont. In fact, I dont believe the author of the piece would be making it out to be that. But, like you say, maybe our views are just different.

      1. 3.1.1
        Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

        It’s a very fine line, I think. Obviously people deserve credit and affirmation for recovering from a mental illness. But why the need to insert the bit about all the actresses who were unable to “turn themselves around”? That’s the problematic part, to me. Not the part that’s affirming Hale.

        1. 3.1.1.1
          Titfortat

          That is what they call sensationalism. I know for myself when to make the distinction of what they are trying to do.

  4. 4
    Rachel A. Hanson

    This is definitely a great post. When I read your initial post about celebrity gossip I immediately thought of the paper I just finished writing about a month ago about the extreme fear that women in the U.S. have surrounding childbirth. I used Jessica Simpson’s recent birth as reported in InTouch as an example. Not because I feel that InTouch is a stellar example of investigative journalism but because I know that women, particularly women who plan on having children or already have children, will be drawn to the sensationalized headline and have a lot more fear than they may have naturally (fear of the unknown, etc).

    Anyway, what I’m saying is that it’s important to look at these types of articles and say both “we can do better than this” and also “this helps me to understand the attitudes surrounding ‘x””.

  5. 5
    mx. punk

    nice post! the whole “it’s just cosmo” argument doesn’t make sense to me, either. cosmo doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it informs and is informed by culture. all the people spewing cissexist bullshit at me while quoting south park, for example, have totally convinced me that it’s never “just” a show/magazine/comic book/etc. thanks for this post!

  1. 6
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