Gatekeeping Mental Illnesses: A Spiteful Paradox - by Bazigah Murad

I had sworn to myself that I would opt to write something positive this month. The announcement that we were going theme-free seemed like an incentive, not going to lie. So yes, there I sat, opened my notebook, and started looking into the list of all the positive things happening in the world right now. I got bored sooner than I expected and started surfing through Instagram. There it was! That one post reminded me of the significance of this month. September is internationally recognized as Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. I had a long debate with myself on how to stay relevant to the topic and also not drag the internalized ignorance of our society when it comes to mental health. At the end of the day, I realized that both of these cannot coexist. I could either objectively raise awareness on the subject, or much to my dismay, eulogize the modicum, yet restrained effort of our society to get educated. So here I am, still pointing out the errors of our society. Still just as bitter as ever.

Being in the 21st century, no one could deny the impact mass media has had on everybody’s life in one way or another. We are acutely surrounded by all kinds of technology one could dream of. Every kind of information, whether it is for your research paper or your grandmother’s favorite recipe, is just a click away. Particularly, amidst the pandemic, we witnessed the immense potential of mass media as the only source of communication throughout the world. There’s no denying that social media has quite literally occupied every aspect of our lives.

Social media has also been a great stage to address many stigmatized subjects. It has given voices to a lot of marginalized communities and it connects people beyond local and social boundaries. This way, people are able to find comfort in other people they relate to. Blah, blah. You will find tons of articles idealizing the benefits of mass media in today’s age. It’s not like I do not agree with them, it’s just that I believe that there are way more drawbacks to it than we are willing to admit. One would even go on to say that social media/internet is man’s greatest invention. However, we refuse to acknowledge that our wellbeing is exploited by the very invention we take pride in.

According to tons of worldwide research, there has always been an intimate connection between mass media and our mental wellbeing. Social media has been, undoubtedly, one of the best advocates for mental health and its disorders for the past decade. As a society, we are learning to be vocal about the issues related to mental health. And it is certainly a great thing. But let’s be honest here: not all of us have a degree in psychology. Most of our knowledge of mental health and illnesses comes from the media. We tend to incline towards movies, tv shows, and our good ol’ search engines to educate ourselves on the related subjects. While the intent is admirable, the outcome remains inadequate. One can simply not rely on the media as the only resource of knowledge on an extremely complex subject like mental health.

Mental health was a taboo topic when the media was not around to commentate on it. It was extremely stigmatized and people with mental health problems were termed as “psycho” when their behaviors deviated from what was considered “normal”. Now, as we progress into a revolution, we have started constructive arguments on the subject. But, with constructive arguments comes a great deal of opinions. This obviously leads to the internet being divided into different perspectives. While our media has greatly contributed to sensationalizing mental disorders, there is a whole wing of people on the internet who act as a gatekeeper to these disorders. Stay with me. I will explain it.

According to the Urban dictionary, gatekeeping is when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access to a community or an identity. In this case, mental illnesses and their symptoms. This practice has been mostly observed in people who have had experience with mental health problems over the course of their lives. Mental illnesses look different in different people. An illness can and does entail different symptoms for each person and it is certainly very damaging to associate very limited symptoms to some subjects as vast as mental illnesses.

I had the pleasure to get in touch with some mental health professionals to get some more insight on these issues. Talking to Dr. Saddaf Sohail, a practicing behavioral psychologist, she explained that “Each person is unique and so is their journey. It is insensitive to inflict your own experience on somebody else. Even the siblings living together have experiences that are different from each other. Hence, it is very harmful to randomly toss around ideas and opinions on mental health. All the invalidation and insensitivity people face throughout their journey leaves a very long-lasting effect on them.” She stressed the fact that “We must regard everybody as a human, and it is our moral duty to be kind and empathetic even when it is hard. I remember the time when we were learning to drive, our father advised us to consider everyone on the road unwise. Now it is our duty to be safe and keep everyone safe in the process.”

Therefore, it does not give anyone on social media credibility to decide what does or does not constitute an illness. Everybody has a different threshold for dealing with things. There aren’t and shouldn’t be benchmarks for negative experiences. Some people may be more prone to derangement despite the intensity of a stimulus. Just because a person ''seems'' okay does not mean that they are. Almost all of us are struggling in one way or another. It is very important to have empathy for those who think that there may be something wrong with them and cannot necessarily afford to see a professional at that moment.

An Associate Psychologist, Asra Sulemani, endorses the notion and humbly elucidates the thought process behind gatekeeping. “When a person gets a diagnosis from a professional, they immediately inhibit it into their selves and start acting on it in order to live up to the diagnosis. They subconsciously receive the message that they are forever labeled as a certain illness. It makes them think that they are that disorder and hence, it leads to them invalidating other people going through it. There is very complex psychology behind this. It makes them think that they are controlling the disorder, but in truth, they are letting the disorder control them.”

People are not jumping on the bandwagon just because they have just started talking about it. Over the course of time, the internet has become a safe place for many individuals. Hence, sharing one’s experience gives other people the sense of comfort and confidence to reach out and eventually seek treatment. Empathy comes at no cost; therefore, it is very important to be kind and instead of gatekeeping traumas and disorders, the least we could do is encourage people to get proper treatment. At the end of the day, it all comes down to who we are reaching out to. It is beneficial to understand that not everyone has enough depth and knowledge to understand your trauma. Therefore, the best you could do is consult a professional to understand your symptoms and get the necessary treatment.

It is impossible to get away with talking about this without addressing the majority of the media romanticizing the very idea of mental health disorders and presenting it as a personality trait. The misrepresentation of mental illnesses has been greatly amplified by mass media on so many platforms including movies and tv shows. This carelessness leads to inaccurate diagnosis and further stigmatizes mental illnesses on a large scale. It undermines the credibility and struggles of those who have suffered through it for most of their lives. I cannot stress on this enough, but mental breakdowns are not quirky, or something to be sought after. I wish we had more people talking about how deeply they affect the lives of the sufferers. Claiming mental illnesses out of context deeply invalidates and hurts the sentiments of individuals who have been diagnosed and struggle with such illnesses on a daily basis. It diminishes their experiences. Asra gives her two cents on this and says, “We are normalizing mental health disorders, we are normalizing self-diagnosis, we are normalizing diagnosing other people, but what really needs to be normalized is seeking treatment.”

Mental health and its illnesses must be given the same, proper, and undivided attention that the other physical illnesses are given. These issues do need to be addressed. But with thorough education and expertise. As a society, not everybody has the credibility to speak on behalf of the people who suffer from it. Leave it on the mental health professionals to properly assess a person before drawing a conclusion. Moreover, a person does not have to experience enough trauma to have a certain disease. Invalidating somebody’s trauma just because we have had it worse causes more damage than we can entail. So many people choose not to speak about their struggles just because they think that their experiences are not valid enough. Life is hard for everyone. The least we could do is not make it harder by being insensitive on subjects we don’t have enough knowledge about!

cover credits: The Independent

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