When I first started writing these columns on psychiatric disability (i.e., mental illness), I received messages via Facebook, Twitter, and email from nondisabled people praising my “bravery.” I was taken by surprise. They were calling me brave for disclosing something I’ve lived with every day for decades.
I think I was supposed to say “thank you.” But I didn’t feel thankful for those comments. I felt crabby, and then guilty for feeling crabby. So I did some research trying to figure out if I was alone in how I felt.
Apparently, calling a person with psychiatric disabilities “brave” is a pattern, a trend. Take a look at similar pieces by academics like Elyn Saks in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lisa McElroy in Slate, Brian Clarke on the Faculty Lounge Blog, and Jacqui Shine on Vitae. Scroll through the comments or do a keyword search for the word “brave” and you’ll see that “You’re so brave” is a common theme in responses to academics publicly discussing their psychiatric disabilities. So what’s the problem with that?
To be clear: I’m not talking about the furtive emails I receive from other people telling me about their own mental illnesses that they wish they could disclose, but, for whatever reason, cannot. Those precious little notes often come from a void of loneliness, shot straight from one soul to another.
No. I’m talking about comments from nondisabled people telling me how courageous and inspiring they think my words are. Which leads me to the first problem with the “you’re so brave” response …
Problem No. 1: It Sounds a Lot Like “Inspiration Porn.”
People who call you brave for disclosing a disability often feel “inspired” by you as well. Like this: “Your bravery in sharing your psychiatric disability with the world is so inspiring.” (That’s not an actual quotation from a message I received. Not exactly.) “Brave” plus “Inspiration” is a double-whammy of terrible. As the brilliant Stella Young has so nicely put it, “We’re not here for your inspiration.”
Young, a disability activist and all-around ass-kicker, has launched a full-scale attack on “inspiration porn,” and I’m joining her fight right here. According to Young, inspiration porn “is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary—like playing, talking, running, drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball—and carrying a caption like ‘your excuse is invalid’ or ‘before you quit, try.’”
Why do people create inspiration porn? Young explains: “[I]t’s there so that nondisabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, ‘Oh, well, if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile … I should never, ever feel bad about my life.’” Inspiration-porn lets nondisabled people objectify people with disabilities, and through that objectification, feel better about themselves.
If a nondisabled person calls me brave, that person is invoking the inspiration narrative, implying that I’ve overcome a challenge (such as fear of the stigma against mental illness) in publicly disclosing my disability. But here’s the thing: I’m a disability studies scholar, and a writer, and so writing about disability isn’t that weird for me. There was no “overcoming” here. If my columns are meant to inspire anything, they’re meant to inspire the nondisabled to stop treating the disabled so terribly.
But you know what? Even if it was brave of me to disclose my mental illness in a public venue, I’m not here for your inspiration. Please don’t put that burden on me. When you foist such expectations upon a writer just because he or she has a disability, you are imposing too much.
Indeed, that imposition itself is stigma. Which leads me to problem No. 2.
Problem No. 2: It Piles On—Rather than Fights—Stigma.
Quickly, answer me this: Why would a person be brave for disclosing a psychiatric disability?
Your gut answer would probably be something like: Psychiatric disability is stigmatized in our society. Publicly revealing that you have one takes great courage because you are likely bringing that stigma upon yourself.
When you call a person brave for disclosing a psychiatric disability, your gut answer becomes a truth that you’re imposing on someone else.
When people called me brave after I disclosed my own disability, they made big presumptions about me. They presumed that publishing that piece caused me to feel the effects of societal stigma and that I’d internalized those negative perceptions in certain ways. But stigma is not monolithic. We all experience it in different ways on different days—and we react to it differently, too.
Stigma is not just about fear, but calling people with a mental illness “brave” implies that it is.
When I published my disclosure column, I was not afraid of repercussions (although I did, in the column, discuss an old fear). But then I received literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of well-meaning messages calling me “brave” for publishing it. And I thought, “Well, Katie, if all of these people think you’re so brave, maybe you should be afraid of something.”
Indeed, by insisting that it took “great courage” to talk about having a psychiatric disability, these message-writers inadvertently (well, let’s hope so) imposed that fear upon me, when I might not have felt any at all. They were piling on more stigma and not giving me room to feel anger, frustration, annoyance, and all of the myriad emotional reactions to stigma that people with psychiatric disabilities may experience.
Which leads me to problem No. 3 about being called “brave.”
Problem No. 3: It Stops, Rather Than Starts, Conversations.
You know what people with disabilities really don’t like? Nondisabled people—especially those whose opinions we did not ask for—telling us what must be going on inside our brains. They probably meant well, but my brain is already kind of a sensitive subject (see, e.g., stigma), and now I’m getting emails from total strangers telling me how much they know about my feelings.
So instead of making assumptions—which can halt conversation—try asking questions. I do have reasons for talking about psychiatric disability, stigma, and yes, fear—even fear that I used to and still sometimes feel—but please don’t assume that you know what I’m feeling when you couldn’t possibly know.
If you’re reading Vitae, you’re likely an academic. Use your skills of inquiry and ask me: “How did you feel when you published this piece?” Or: “Did you feel afraid when you disclosed your disability?” And then I will explain.
Our job as scholars is to add to the discourse around a topic. These columns are meant to start conversations about psychiatric disability and the academy. These conversations—how the academy does or does not deal with psychiatric disabilities—are important ones for all academics to have. Because whether we like it or not, psychiatric disability surrounds us in the academy every day.