Mental Health

Punching Back: The Power of Words in the Fight Against Mental Health Stigma

By:Candace Daymond

Discussing mental illness and fragility in black women on social media can be viewed as an act of bravery and help reduce mental health stigma. A microcosm of variant personalities and backgrounds, Twitter, one of two social sites that I enjoy, features a host of online communities that do just that.

I am fortunate to belong to a community that features a strong presence of black women who use their tweets to insert their voices into a variety of conversations that would, otherwise, lack the black woman’s perspective and possibly erase her. One hundred and forty characters at a time, Black women have used twitter to construct powerful voices and fight to ensure that those voices are heard.

I joined Twitter in 2009 as a young, Facebook-loving, eager to talk high school student. While I’d had my bouts with anxiety, I’d never questioned the value of my words, opting to express myself as a writer by journaling, blogging, and participating in social media discussions, regardless of who listened to or ignored me. This would soon change after I entered college in 2011. By 2014, I had sunk deeply into depression and my experience with my illness would impact my self-confidence.

I lost faith in my vocal presence in the months before and after my diagnosis of depression. Disoriented, I refused to write, journal, or even tweet. While I still visited my Twitter community, my account had become a sea of retweets, and an appreciation for the words of others with no space for my own. I toiled with this realization and found that I’d become afraid that my words would remain unnoticed, unwanted, unappreciated. That they were somehow worth less than everyone else’s.

Upon catching the daily trends, I ventured to tweet thoughts of my own, but I found myself deleting my words and closing out my drafts. After weeks of grappling with my self-silencing, I came to the conclusion that I would try to nurse my voice back to health using Twitter. I would dare to tweet my thoughts, my responses, my jokes, my mantras. Maybe I, too, could be a brave soul, willing to expose herself, with necessary reservation, and use Twitter to chronicle certain parts of my life, depression and anxiety included.

Weeks into my project, I noticed a particular conversation involving four celebrities, an alleged cheating scandal, and subsequently a suicide attempt. Amidst millions of social discussions of her alleged infidelity, reports surfaced that artist Kehlani had survived a suicide attempt. Many would criticize her willingness to post about such a traumatic event and venture to question the authenticity of her suicide attempt.

Some would even dismiss her attempt a quest for attention or an effort to curb the criticisms that she’d been forced to endure. Perhaps, they thought because her personal life didn’t appear to be free of spot, blemish, or blame she, like many others, didn’t deserve support, understanding, well wishes, or peace in the form of solitude. Most notably, Chris Brown, in the midst of tweets supporting Kyrie Irving (Kehlani’s ex-boyfriend), dismissed her, saying “There is no attempting suicide. Stop flexing for the gram. Doing sh*t for sympathy so them comments under your pics don’t look so bad.”

I attempted to ignore the comment. That didn’t work so I sighed heavily and performed a slow motion eye roll. That wasn’t enough. I, too, had dealt with symptoms of depression and the brief, fleeting, yet harmful thoughts of suicide, during bouts of stress and public exposure. Seeing a message like this actually hurt. Shaking it off wasn’t an option. I considered tweeting my frustrations to strangers, but I quickly reconsidered, opting to tweet a friend instead.

I tweeted my best friend, who is a Chris Brown fan, to alert her of my anger and dismay. A few tweets in, however, I noticed that I could barely tell the difference between my best friend and the millions of Kehlani conspiracy theorists on Twitter. It became a battle, a boxing match between myself and the culture of disbelief. I threw the first blow.

@BFF: Tell ya mans Chris to STFU.” She launched into a freedom of speech defense (which she tried to convince me was not a defense of her beloved artist fave) and deflected with the notion that somehow, his retort was hilarious. “ @me: He’s exercising his right…I find it hilarious to be honest.

Still pissed, I used my words to fight back, hoping to KO the careless attitude gain her allegiance. “@BFF He dismissed someone’s suicide attempt as a “flex for the gram That’s not funny…”.Taking it a step further, I inserted my own experience into the conversation, hoping to help her see the issue from my perspective. “…especially as someone who suffers from mental illness.” She remained unfazed and then, like many others in my Twitter community, asked “@me: Does she really suffer from mental illness? Like you saw the papers with her diagnosis on it?”

Huge blow. I was up against the ropes. She’d never asked me for my papers. I felt like a boxer trying to regain her position. Refusing to give up I tweeted, “@BFF: You haven’t see the papers with my diagnosis. That doesn’t mean I’m a liar.” Her response took a toll on my will to fight. “@me: I took yours seriously because I know you.” In that moment of weakness, her dismissal of my use of experience for support caused me to wonder what the conversation would be like if I hadn’t told her. If she was unaware of my battles with depression, would I have been willing to tell her? Or would I have cowered under the possible pressure of being forced to authenticate my experience with this illness.

I gathered myself, but I wasn’t prepared for her next blow of pure apathy. “@me: All I’m saying is I’m done with being butt hurt about what somebody says about somebody else…Sh*t don’t phase me anymore lol.” How could I match a fight with an opponent who’d become a wall of indifference? How could my best friend be indifferent to my struggle?

I tried to reason with her, but while doing so, I noticed that I was giving in to stigma culture. I tried to pacify by slightly identifying with the culture. I tried fit into the mold of “unbotheredness” by slapping transitions onto my explanations like “I’m not butt hurt, but..”, even though my esteem was sorely injured.

I, then, apologized for my feelings, saying “I hate to be so emotional in the am, but…” And then I retreated, feeling that I had lost the battle against apathy and misunderstanding and said “@: BFF: But, I digress. Let me get off my soapbox.” Exhausted, I silenced myself, because, as James Baldwin says “…what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”

Lack of knowledge or personal experience has lead us to creating hostile spaces on social media with limited vocal space for those who experience what we fail to understand. The malicious and/or indifferent spaces we create online seep into our everyday thought processes, leading us to unknowingly injure those who deal with the issues we choose to ignore or refuse to accept without tangible proof. Stigma culture does more harm than silencing scapegoats.

It pushes those who suffer silently further into the shadows. It doesn’t begin with a physical act of resistance, but with our words. The careless dismissals, the immediate disbelief, and the tendency to doubt honest intention directly impacts a depressed individual’s willingness to acknowledge the need for support and readiness to seek aid.

Seeing my friends and other followers that I know personally made it difficult to imagine Twitter as this world where the unsympathetic, unaccepting, and unforgiving trolls live. I saw these people everyday. How could I vocalize my sentiments, knowing that they might send me to the gallows of apathetic shame with charges of lying and attention seeking?

I resolved to press forward anyway, challenging the notion that my words held little to no value and weren’t worth respect. BFF would later agree with me after a discussion of words, social media, and safe spaces. While still injured, we have strengthened our alliance, understanding the impact of words on those around us.

While I initially lost the battle of words and wills, my refusal to lose my voice has pushed me to regain my vocal ground. Becoming aware of the power of my words to fight back, to mend, to heal has helped me immensely. It is now my greatest hope that my words will inspire others to use their words to create safer spaces for release, understanding, and healing.

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