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Bridging Advocacy and Disability Studies

An Active Mind's picture

Anne suggested that for my last post this semester I make a list of suggestions for mental health advocacy organizations like Active Minds through the lens of some of what I've been learning about in disability studies.  

  • In disability studies, scholars focus on how cultures themselves are flawed and resist discourses that attempt to fix the individual or find a cure for illnesses.  However, organizations like Active Minds are aimed at spreading awareness about different mental disabilities and ensuring that individuals receive proper treatment.  Maybe Active Minds could work on illuminating how the structure of the academy itself is faulty and often only serves to exacerbate students’ own struggles with issues of mental health?  Perhaps their mission might be even more effective if they work on changing the system instead of merely working within the system itself?  
  • I’d like to see more conversations concerning issues of mental health happening among Active Minds and deans, faculty, staff, and administration.  Over the summer, Anne suggested that Active Minds contact various professors whose courses looked like they might incorporate issues of mental health and see what types of articles or lessons they were putting on their syllabi.  Talking more about mental disability (or disability in general) in the classroom as a whole is important.  I’d like to see more classes on disability studies offered on campus and I’d like to see the professors of these courses collaborating with Active Minds. 
  • It’s important that Active Minds talk to faculty about what mental health issues students might be facing in the classroom.  As Margaret Price suggests in her book Mad at School, it may be simply wording accommodations differently on the syllabus, getting professors to understand that all students learn differently—not just those who are registered with the disability office.  It’s also important to question why the notions of presence and participation are so valued in the academy (which Price also discusses in her book).  Active Minds might also encourage faculty members to talk about their own struggles with mental illness with their students (which is something that was discussed at the “Stomp Out Stigma” event).   
  • At a place like Bryn Mawr, which is so academic, I sometimes feel like the activities suggested by Active Minds aren’t entirely effective.  Simply placing silver ribbons outside people’s doors or holding "De-Stress Teas" don't seem to have a huge impact on the campus as a whole.  I really liked the “Stomp Out Stigma” event because I felt like it really featured advocacy efforts (the video) all while also offering a more academic lens for assessing issues of disability, etc. (the panel discussion).  
  • I’d also like to see more personal connections developed among people involved in mental health advocacy on campus.  Active Minds is, of course, not a support group, but I sometimes feel that its members are all fighting for the same cause, but talk little about their own struggles.  Their attempts to toughen it out alone ends up destroying their mission to create "conversation about mental health" and bring others closer together.  As Anne wrote in a comment on one of my posts, “What would happen, if we reconceived ourselves as a community of dependent beings, leaky, fragile, needing the care and attention of one another, rather than as independent entities?”
  • I think it’s also important for mental healthy advocacy organizations to highlight the pain associated with mental illness.  Too often the suffering is glossed over and people refrain from describing the symptoms of their illnesses because they’re embarrassed, worry about being stigmatized, etc.  But one of the problems is that people who don’t have a mental illness often seem unable to conceptualize what it might feel like to have one.  If those with mental disabilities had the courage to describe the narratives of their own illness, perhaps issues of mental health would begin to receive more respect and empathy.  
  • I also feel that in mental health advocacy there’s a tendency to want others to know that even though you have a mental illness, you’re just like everyone else.  I, too, am very much invested in making sure that others know that even though I have OCD, I'm still a "normal" college student.  This type of logic can become problematic because it’s merely reinforcing what is considered “normal” and only imposes the binary between “sane” and “insane.”  I think advocacy organizations might work on embracing the differences that come with mental disabilities and express pride for having “an active mind.”  They should focus instead on their own oddity rather than their attempts to enter the sphere of "normalcy."
  • Overall,  I think Active Minds has done a great deal to "chang[e] the conversation about mental health" on college campuses and I believe that it will continue to evolve in the future.  


Christina Sponias's picture

A definition

I believe that we need to define sound mental health before discussing what is normal or abnormal. There are many different opinions about this matter.