As longtime followers of this blog (not a large number, I suspect) are aware, I am a semiologist. Like Ferdinand Sassuer, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Roland Barth, I do not subscribe to the Platonic notion that language is a human invention created to describe an a priori reality we encounter. Rather, I am of the belief that Language (with a capitol “L”) is a systems of signs and symbols, and it is this system of representation which, in fact, creates the experience we call reality.
As proof, I offer the very way we think. Human beings think in symbols. For some, these symbols are shapes or images, for some they are colors, for others they are sounds, and for many they are words. Our minds (and brains) operate through symbols. We can know nothing for which we do not first have a symbol. We even have a symbol for things we cannot know: it is the symbol, “Things We Cannot Know.” “Reality” is created when various symbols are arranged into complex patterns called “narratives.” In this way, narratives are more than just, “the stories we tell ourselves about our world;” they are the very structures which create the world we tell ourselves our stories about.
All of this is in preface for my attempted deconstruction of the narratives of this week, for this is Mental Health Awareness Week.
The first narrative worth examining is the one which insists that ideas and people outside of the mainstream are worthy of awareness, notice, or honor only one week or month out of the year. This narrative creates the reality in which we can assuage our guilt over their marginalization, and at the same time do no harm to our privilege, by simply “being aware” of them for a prescribed period. While I appreciate your awareness this week of my issues, please add to your annual awareness that those of us living with mental health issues are aware of mental health issues (and continue to live among you) fifty-two weeks a year.
A good friend posted to their Facebook a meme for this week making us aware that depression and anxiety are not signs of being weak but are signs of “having tried to remain strong for too long.” A wonderful sentiment, but a dangerous narrative in need of deconstructing.
Let’s look first at the idea of strength and weakness. Besides their being binary oppositions (of which I am not a big fan), they imply a greater degree of agency on the part of the depressive than is actually present. Depression and anxiety (and all other mental health issues) are not questions of strength or weakness but of brain chemistry.
More important, and in many ways more harmful, is the concept of failure inherent in the agency assigned to the depressive. The narrative creates a reality in which depression is a sign of a person attempting to realize the Western ideal of stoic strength in face of adversity but ultimately failing in the attempt. The meme asks us to “share our support,” but is our support for you given because you live with depression, or is it for your having failed to be strong?
While appearing to rally support for the one in three among us who deal with mental health issues daily, the meme actually reinforces the larger narrative of pity for the one in three among us too weak to live up to the myth of strength central to our concept of self in Western civilization. One in three of us is not seen as having an illness, a disease very much like any other disease, over which we have little to no control, but rather as a failure for not living up to a unreal expectation or, worse, for being too weak to attain it.
The philosopher Wang Chung once sang that the words we use are strong: they create reality. We can, on a micro scale, change, control, and construct some of the narratives we tell ourselves. However, on a larger scale, the most we can do is be aware of the larger narratives which frame our thinking and through which we “interpret” our reality. Please be aware!
This what I mean by deconstructing the narratives surrounding mental health.