Student Discusses Mental Health and Privilege
By: Amy Gu
“It’s a shame that something like that [a suicide] would happen at our school,” a principal told one of my classmates four years ago when she brought up the late death of our classmate.
But it’s not a shame that a white middle class, amid, well-liked boy died from depression, among a mostly white, middle class community. Depression happens everywhere. As a friend succinctly stated, “mental health doesn’t discriminate.”
Asking peers not to take their privilege for granted doesn’t have to imply asking them to deny that they suffer. I don’t deny that some people new to the discussion of power and privilege might misinterpret privilege as immunity to all forms of pain. Regardless, all people are privileged in some way, and all people can recognize their privileges without discounting their pain.
Take a middle-class, Caucasian or fair-skinned man with a broken leg. This man might encounter a another broken-leg patient, a woman of color, who does not have the financial stability to afford health care. This woman might create a GoFundMe page asking for donations to pay for her hospital fees and some paint to recolor her “flesh-toned” cast to her own flesh’s color tone.
This woman might know the man with a broken leg and ask him to donate a few dollars to her hospital fees, explaining her situation as a trans woman of color of a low socio-economic status. In agreeing, this man does not deny that his own leg, healing at an average pace beneath a cast that matches his skin tone, is broken and that it causes him pain. He only acknowledges that other people face additional pains in addition to the struggles that he would face as a white middle class man. He also acknowledges that people like himself, middle-class white men who have the choice whether or not to succumb to stereotypes of trans women of color being weak and deserving of injury, can use their end of the wage gap to pitch a few dollars to help another person heal from a broken leg.
Similar to physical privileges (affording a cast of your skin tone), acknowledging one’s own socio-emotional privileges doesn’t imply immunity to pain. A white man can actively stop peers from making gestures, comments, or actions that might demean his non-white non-male peers. This doesn’t mean he must deny his degenerating mental health as he studies and works simultaneously to pay for and graduate on time at an expensive university. White women can recognize that the beauty standards of fair skin and Western European facial features are harmful to the mental health of people of color. But that doesn’t mean white people deny that they too face low self-esteem and body shaming in an industry that sexualizes all women.
Identifying as white, cis-gender, financially stable, college-educated, straight, a child of two married and living parents, having a car, or any other privilege is to identify as having something that frees you from a burden other people have. Identifying as an ally is to use the bit of freedom you might have from a privilege (whether it’s a few dollars to spare or a sliver of authority in a male- or white-dominated job) to allow someone else a bit of that freedom too.
When people of marginalized groups discuss the socio-emotional burdens of being a marginalized individual, keep in mind that oppression does not denote depression. One can experience depression without experiencing oppression. This isn’t a crime or deficiency to feel ashamed of or to shame others for. Mental illness arises in all parts of society, not just the margins.
My late classmate’s strength to live until his death is not in vain. His peers know that it’s not a shame that everyone’s mental health is breakable, just like how everyone’s bones are breakable. Shame doesn’t heal mental illness. Professional treatment, rest, respect from peers, and other convalescent tactics do. Mental illness isn’t a weakness or the result of a spoiled, pessimistic, immature way of thinking. It just is.