How a Mental Health Reveal Is Betrayed by Bigotry

Here's how not to respond when a friend reveals a mental health condition.

Posted May 08, 2019

“Have you ever considered using a mental health condition as an example of neo-diversity?"

As other students left the lecture hall, a white female student was asking me that question at the end of the lecture day of my “Interdependence and Race” course.

“Not really,” I said. “As you have seen, I do, of course, consider mental health conditions that can activate neo-diversity anxieties, but I am not qualified to talk about the features of any particular mental health condition.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “I mean how learning someone has a mental health condition can push an ingroup/outgroup feeling into a relationship.”

This was a very sophisticated question. Taking her seriously, I told her that I could not see a way to include that idea in our class in the remaining lectures, but would think about it. 

Truth is, I was resistant to taking this subject on in lecture. After all, I had never done so before. Not only that, but I wasn’t sure where it would fit in my lecture scheme, or whether it was important enough to take on.

My student thanked me for talking, left, and went on with the rest of her day.

I turned to my teaching assistants. Undergraduates as teaching assistants is one of my innovations for teaching my one-of-its-kind “Interdependence and Race” class. That course is a very challenging one, because it digs into a topic that is so highly volatile in America: neo-diversity. Neo-diversity is the modern interpersonal situation of America, where we all have to encounter and interact with people not like us on some group dimension (e.g., gender identity, religion, bodily condition, race, mental health condition, ethnicity, sexual orientation). A central concern of the course is why and how neo-diversity can create anxiety during a social interaction and cause interpersonal problems.

Every semester, my undergraduate teaching assistants help me in many ways, observing the classroom group dynamic, especially on days when we have open discussions, or when the lecture material is particularly intense (e.g., the lecture on racial slurs). Some semesters they also help me fine-tune (add or subtract material from) my lectures to fit with what is going on in the psychology of students in our class or on our campus that semester or year—information I cannot get without our conversations.

In spring 2019, when I asked my teaching assistants for their thoughts about the mental health condition question, both became pensive. Catherine, a self-described “Southern white woman” from Mt. Airy, NC, and Ziyere, a tall, dark-skinned African-American male from New York and self-described introvert, each hesitated to think about the question. Eventually, each in their own way said they thought this was important to include in a lecture. Lo and behold, our conversation reminded me of a paper written by a student in an earlier semester. Suddenly I could see where to put the potential interpersonal dynamics of a mental health reveal into one of my lectures.

Through that conversation with my teaching assistants and my remembering a particular student story, I had found a way and a place to talk about the potential neo-diversity anxiety, intergroup dynamics of a mental health condition reveal. I would talk about the potential dynamics of a mental health reveal moment in one of the upcoming lectures on language communities.

Language communities as a topic has to do with how we talk to each other from different group standpoints. One of the keys to productive interpersonal (and intergroup) dialogues is partner responsiveness—engaging in honest self-disclosure and receiving a response from your interaction partner that seems to show understanding, validation, and caring. To develop healthy relationships, this partner responsiveness must be mutual. (1)

It turns out that one of the challenges of neo-diversity is to have interactions with people “…not like you” and respond to their stories with interpersonal respect, with partner responsiveness. Too often today in neo-diversity interactions, people respond with culture-centric negative social judgments: My group’s way is the only way.

Now I had a way to talk about the moment of a mental health condition reveal and show how that moment could become an ingroup-outgroup moment. You see, the semester before, one of my students had written their story of such a moment going bad. She wrote:

“In the fall of my freshman year of college, I was severely depressed. That December, I made an attempt on my life.

"The week I returned home from the emergency room, my best friend 'B' drove over to hang out with me, since my mother didn’t exactly trust me to leave the house, or be left alone at the time. He knew the gist of what had happened, but upon arriving to my house, I explained the situation further.”

Let us note here that this is an incredibly intimate, honest self-disclosure. Our writer did so trusting her best friend. Continuing with her story, she wrote:

"When I had finally gotten my story out, the one person I trusted more than anyone repetitively told me how disappointed he was in me. He said that my decision was selfish and stupid and that nothing in life could be so terrible.

"He did not understand my situation, or my depression. Lucky for him, he had never suffered from intense trauma or a mental health disorder.

"I tried to explain that there was a chemical imbalance in my brain, appeal to the science side of things. I thought, science couldn’t possibly be seen as subjective. I became emotional, and upon realizing how much he had upset me, he apologized. We watched a movie and chose not to discuss it anymore.”

Not only was there no partner responsiveness from her “best friend,” his reaction to her mental health reveal was interpersonally brutal and demeaning. That had a powerful effect on our writer. Going on with her story, she describes the personal effect on her of this brutal interpersonal interaction:

“The scars on my left arm serve as a constant reminder of the lack of understanding of mental health disorders. After this reaction, I became closed off about what had happened. I was hurt by my friend’s reaction, and did not want to subject myself to that kind of scolding again.

"I knew that it was not my fault, and that I did not have a reason to be embarrassed. But I chose not to share my story with others, because I was unsure of how to approach the situation in a way that could help others learn about mental health.”

In a moment of trusting vulnerability, this young person struggling with a mental health condition found herself face-to-face with hibernating bigotry. Hibernating bigotry is bigotry that sleeps until the right stimulus comes along to wake it up, and then it awakens with a roar (2): "He said that my decision was selfish and stupid and that nothing in life could be so terrible.”

Today, in a neo-diverse interaction, too often people response with culture-centric negative social judgements that stop communication and relationship development and feelings of belongingness. When I used this story in lecture to talk about the challenge of mental health condition neo-diversity interpersonal interactions, my students went stiff and wide-eyed.

In that (newish) lecture, I said, “You see, even a reveal of a mental health condition can activate an ingroup, outgroup dynamic. Just in the same way as other neo-diversity (female, male; Muslim, Christian) interaction moments.”

What made it intergroup? Our writer put it this way: “He did not understand my situation, or my depression. Lucky for him, he had never suffered from intense trauma or a mental health disorder.”

Immediately my students recognized how this mental health condition reveal reaction was an intergroup dynamic. Also, through their non-verbal behavior, many seemed to be showing me and my teaching assistants that this was another one they had participated in some time in their past, directly or indirectly. A feeling of guilt seemed to fill the lecture hall.

I have learned to listen to and take seriously my students' comments and concerns. Even when I resist at first, I give it thought. This time, with a push from my undergraduate teaching assistants, I revised a lecture. Doing so was educational for me, and most importantly for my students. Now my students have a sense of how easily trust in a friend can be betrayed when it activates hibernating bigotry about mental health conditions. 

For a variety of reasons, mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, clinical depression, suicidal thoughts) are on the rise among young people. When those young people reach out for support from others, the last thing they need or can cope with is for that interaction moment to become us-versus-them and finding themselves berated by a “friend” for the fact that they are struggling.

References

1.      Laurenceau, J-P., Barrett, L.F. & Pietromonaco, P.R. (1998).  Intimacy as an interpersonal process: The importance of self-disclosure, partner disclosure, and perceived partner responsiveness in interpersonal exchanges.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1238-1251.

2.      Nacoste, R.W. (2015, pp. 163-175). Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.