What Does it Really Mean to be ‘Mentally Ill’?


Sarah Sawyer is a senior at the University of Alabama studying International Relations and Chinese. She spends her ‘free time’ studying and wondering if Publix will have a sale on its wine anytime soon. She wrote this post for Dr. Ramey’s class, REL 321: Religion and Identity in South Asia.

“Many people feel ashamed because our society places illogical taboos on mental health issues and our silence can have deadly consequences.” These wise words are those of UA’s very own Elise Goubet as she ‘outed’ herself as having a mental illness in a powerful piece in the Crimson White on October 15th. In this article, Ms. Goubet asks for her fellow students to spark the conversation of what it means to identify as ‘mentally ill’ within a culture that has created so many stigmas around mental health issues.

We can identify ourselves in an infinite amount of ways. We use every part of speech and, in some cases, create new words to try to accurately describe ourselves. Identification is a fluid thing going both horizontally and vertically. When I am with my mother, I identify as a ‘daughter’ and sometimes a ‘rebel’. When I am with my sister, I identify as a ‘best friend’, ‘protector’ and ‘coffee maker’. When I am within a classroom, I identify as a ‘scholar’ and subsequently a ‘coffee addict’.

However, what is of more consequence may not be that identity is relative but the ways in which identity is regulated. Often we are forced into boxes of restricted identification that cause us to neglect the most beautiful or personal parts of ourselves. Every society and culture has its own ideas as to what behaviors or identifications are acceptable for a person to have. One way in which identity is regulated regards those who identify as having a ‘mental illness’. This identification is highly stigmatized within the US, and in many ways this stigma has crippling effects. Those who identify as having a mental illness are forced to hide or ignore these differences because there is little acceptance for them within our community. In many ways what we are labeling as an ‘illness’ is just a different way of thinking, and those who are forced into hiding themselves are deprived the chance to blossom in the world. Out there are people like Iris Grace, a five year old girl with autism who recently has been recognized for her impressionist-like paintings, who are bristling with potential. Whether that potential be artistic, emotional, or any other combination of things, if they are not encouraged or allowed to openly identify, then they will be labeled incorrectly as ‘ill’.

It can be argued that as a species, humans are obsessed with art and all of its manifestations. But what is art except for an expression of what is within us? Many times art is praised specifically for its ability to remove us from our current way of seeing things into a whole new spectrum of understanding. Perhaps there is a way for us to remove ourselves and appreciate and understand those whose brains function in ways that ours may not. Mental capacity and functioning is more of a spectrum than many times we would like to suppose.

Labels are a part of language, and they help us to form our view of the world around us; however, as Ms. Goubet said, every day this mislabeling silences those who need to be heard.

E. E. Cummings exemplified the influence our society has over the ways in which we identity ourselves when he wrote, “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

One thought on “What Does it Really Mean to be ‘Mentally Ill’?

  1. As you state there is indeed a stigma attached to identifying yourself as having mental illness. I share your view that we not “neglect the most beautiful or personal parts of ourselves” despite the illness we may live with daily.

    I live with depression but I am generally open about it for two reasons.

    First off it helps me deal with my own issues. Getting it out relievs the stress that would occur if I were to hide or deny my depression. I have had generally supportive comments from those around me and the strangers I meet in conversation from time to time.

    Secondly has to do with the culture of openness developing in Canada around mental illness. Celebrities from many walks of life have come forward with there helpful stories of mental struggles. They speak in public forums, support public awareness programs and answer tough questions. I personally am thankful they do speak out and thus I will too when opportunities arise in the hopes that something I say can help even one person, or someone close to them.

    Thanks Sarah. Keep writing and soothing our minds.