When Speaking Out Works – Changing a Stigmatized World

Again and again I talk on this blog (and much more often on the more active Facebook page about the importance of speaking out. Share your stories. Speak your truth. Stand for what is right. Defend those who are not yet able to defend themselves. Define discrimination when it has not yet been defined. Name stigma where it is going unnamed.

You don’t have to be angry or loud or rude or cruel. You don’t have to call attention to yourself if you don’t want to. But in little ways, throughout our day, we can all start to change the world.

Below is an email conversation I had with a faculty member of my new college after what was, for me, a troubling conversation in our first class session. Please believe me when I tell you that what I wanted to do was drop this class and say nothing at all about the situation. I did, in fact, drop the class. But to say nothing? Though the temptation was strong to fly below the radar on this one, an opportunity for discussion would have been missed. And, I think you’ll agree if you read through to her final email, the risk was worth the outcome.

Take the risk. Change the world.

My first email:

Dear Professor,
Yesterday during our initial class a conversation was initiated by myself on the topic of mental illnesses. You may remember that I said that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder but, thanks to proper care and stabilization, didn’t consider it to be an overall detriment to my life, that my experience with this illness had brought about such positive changes in my lifestyle and perception of self and in my goals that I included it among my list of things that had in some way contributed to my overall wellness.
After I spoke another girl in class talked about her battle with depression, a battle she openly talked about still being very much in the midst of. She said she didn’t like to treat her disease with medicine because it made her feel “lifeless” and she “didn’t like to feel like that.”
At this point you interjected a personal opinion about pharmaceutical medications, agreeing that, yes, the side effects were far worse than the disease they were meant to treat. Readily many members of the class agreed with you and a joking and often mocking discussion of sorts began, the idea being to list all the ways pharmaceutical medications are bad. Several ideas of your own were offered, among them were that the list of side effects were not worth the trouble, and that it’s more or less a big money making scheme between the US government and Big Pharma. The takeaway from the conversation was that pharmaceutical medications were ineffective, a conspiracy designed to make the rich richer, and in the end the sick would just get sicker.
While I can sympathize with your viewpoint, and even share it to an extent, I was deeply troubled to see such a conversation initiated and encouraged by a member of faculty. We are living in a time period where suicide rates and major depressive episodes continue to be on the rise despite the best efforts to reach these troubled populations. We live in a culture that stigmatizes mentally ill people and discriminates so completely against people who are brave enough to ask for help that many times people are unwilling to do so in any way that can be considered preventative.
While there are many treatments of care, changes of lifestyle and diet, and even amazing herbs and minerals known to help ease the symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses, there is (perhaps unfortunately) very little in the way of (legal) immediate crisis management that is not pharmaceutically based.
I thought about not saying anything about this conversation. Certainly I wasn’t overly offended – though as a person with bipolar disorder I *have* to take medicine or my brain will continue to worsen and I will likely end up institutionalized – but I kept thinking “what if?” What if the two or three people who didn’t have something to add weren’t just bored and waiting to get out of class? What if one of them was thinking about how close she was to her breaking point? What if she had been about to make that call for help and now she was thinking about how there was no point? And perhaps, most likely even, I am overthinking, but what if? We don’t know who we are talking in front of. I know I would hate to be the person that dissuaded a person from getting help they desperately needed. I know I’m glad no one did that to me.
Professor’s Response: 
I am glad that you brought this to my attention. I am so sorry that you felt that way, and I must say that my recollection of the conversation wasn’t quite the same as yours.  With that said, I should have put my comments in more context.  Of course, there are many illnesses/diseases where the traditional medications are necessary, important, even vital.  I know that, and believe it, but by not clearly stating that I can see where one might think that was not the case.  I wasn’t discrediting those cases, and I didn’t get the sense that any of the students in class were either.  I was referring more to the tendency for doctors to over medicate patients or go immediately to a drug as opposed to considering other options (diet/exercise, alternative options, etc.) or perhaps getting to the underlying reason for an illness/disease.  This is, I believe, mostly due to their training.  I understand that an alternative option is not always an option, or appropriate, for some illnesses/diseases.
Another point I was trying to make, and apparently not very well, was that there are many side effects to many medications, that those side effects can be harmful, and one might want to consider other options where/if possible.  I don’t believe that I ever said that they weren’t worth the trouble.  If someone else in the class said that, I didn’t hear it   And, it is true that the pharmaceutical companies are money makers.  The pharmaceutical advertisements push drugs for all kinds of things and certainly don’t emphasize the negative side effects, although they are mentioned usually in the background or at the end of an advertisement.  Again, though that is true, these medications are vital to many.  My sense was that the joking was not relative to people taking drugs/medications but rather to the vetting/approval processes for making drugs, as well as the profit made from manufacturing/selling drugs and a sense that maybe they don’t care enough about the side effects to try to make them better.
I honestly don’t think anyone in the class was saying that you or anyone else should not be using medications/drugs, nor did I get the sense that anyone else was uncomfortable with the conversation.  One student did ask me after class if I would clarify next week that when people disclose personal information as part of our classroom discussions that there be an understanding that that information not be shared outside the classroom.  I will mention that next week.  This same person also said that this was the first class she had been in this semester where the atmosphere was open and inclusive, and how much she appreciated that.
I remember you from class, Seana, and actually thought that what you contributed to the conversation was very good.  I think the other students appreciated what you offered as well, and understood how importation medication was for you in your life.  I hope you continue to share and offer your opinion.  I want everyone to be comfortable doing so, and we can all learn from each other.
If you would like to discuss this in person, I am certainly open to meeting with you.  I will, though, try to discuss confidentiality and respect for each other’s opinions in class next week.  Doing so might be a bit difficult next week as we have guest presenters coming to class.  If there isn’t enough time next week, I’ll certainly mention it the following week.
My Second Email:
I appreciate the clarification of your views and am glad to hear they are not necessarily what they sounded, or what my takeaway was, during class on Wednesday.
On points other than that, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I didn’t have the overt sense that anyone else was uncomfortable with the discussion either. But that wasn’t necessarily my point. My point was that a discussion on pharmaceuticals was initiated immediately following a discussion on mental health, thus linking the two. In my mind it might be relevant to then say “of course, it is sometimes necessary to treat a mental illness, or any other illness with medicine” and that to not say so is to add to the stigma of that medication.
I don’t say these things for myself. I don’t keep my illness or my medications a secret. But I have transitioned many, many people through their stigma fighting days and perhaps because of that am hyper aware of the things we say and do that allow these things to perpetuate.
Please know that I’m not upset in any way, I only hoped to bring your attention to a matter that I thought might interest you. If your takeaway was different then I will certainly allow for the possibility that I was focused on the wrong parts of the conversation and leave it at that.
I have dropped the class for this semester in favor of Intro to Sociology. It felt like a better fit for my schedule. We’ll catch up again another semester.
Professor’s Response: 
I really do appreciate your comments, and I have taken away some ideas to improve my teaching.  I am sorry that you are dropping the course but do understand.  Perhaps I’ll see you in a future class.   I hope the semester goes well for you.

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