Unheard: Healing From Trauma and Mental Illness

Margot Beck and JP Stark

Healing from trauma and mental illness is an experiment. It is a restorative process with the aim of helping people live in bodies that feel fundamentally safe. We must be a community of seekers if we are to remedy the mental health crisis. An adaptive approach needs to be taken for treatment; the same is true for how we communicate about trauma and mental illness. Much of the present dialogue surrounding mental illness serves to stigmatize and normalize the experiences of the mentally ill. This is a societal failure, as the role of helping those struggling with a mental disorder does not reside solely with mental health professionals and loved ones of the affected. It takes a community of safe relationships to heal from trauma and alleviate the effects of mental illness.  

To observe the widespread negligence of the mental health crisis in this country, we need not look further than our own backyard. The University touts its impressive 9:1 student-faculty ratio, but what isn’t advertised by the university is another very telling statistic: one psychologist per 600 students. As stated by the National Alliance for Mental Illness in their report on college campuses, one in four young adults suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. A team of six counselors is far from adequate to deal with this issue. In contrast, Susquehanna University has continued to offer face-to-face drop-in counseling throughout the pandemic and hosts multiple counselor-mediated support groups. The Counseling and Student Development Center at the University has ceased to offer walk-in services since the onset of the pandemic, and the wait time to meet with a professional at the school can be over a month long.  Students are suffering in silence, and that silence has grown deafening during the 2021-22 school year. This is what the systemic stigmatization of mental illness looks like. This is why college campuses are hatcheries for hidden pain.  

Stigma has been countered by a movement to normalize mental illness; this is an unwise approach. We must be capable of both acknowledging that our society is struggling with a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions, without generalizing these experiences. Mental illness is common, but it is not normal. Phrasing mental illness in this manner may reduce stigma but it does so by obscuring the reality of the mentally ill. Each individual’s experience with trauma and mental illness is uncommon, unique only to them. By reducing stigma in this way, we resign the mentally ill to acquiescence. The affected resign themselves to acknowledging that they are not alone in their suffering by agreeing that their suffering is the same as others. This only serves to advance hopelessness, as questions like, “If I am not alone why do I feel so alone?”, “If this is normal, why should I seek help?” arise, and this contributes even more to a cycle of pain. When individuals are able to speak of their experiences with mental disorders they are tokenized, their experiences generalized to encompass those of all affected and their successful recovery floated as the only way to overcome. You would not expect a woman to understand the experiences of all women. The same must be true for a person who has experienced trauma and mental illness. 

A sentiment often expressed by those advocating for the normality of mental illness is that it can be treated as would any other physical ailment. This approach attempts to legitimize the suffering of those who are mentally ill by promoting the effectiveness of traditional medicine. However this way of approaching mental health is inadequate, treating mental health as you would a cut or cancer has been the catalyst for our failure. We need to recognize the efficacy of plant medicine in a therapeutic setting. We need to normalize health beneficial activities such as play, body positivity, exploration and meditation. The individuality found through these practices is only possible when all interpretations are embraced. Thus, non-binary, feminine and masculine expression need to be celebrated in full. The toxicity that is often attributed to each is the manifestation of societal illness, it is not a product of intrinsic delivery.

Mental illness is stigmatized and normalized, both of which are harmful to those whose experience it is. We must promote dialogue on these harmful forms of censure, we need to explore underlying causes for illness and not merely minimize symptoms. We have to consider alternative forms of communication and treatment. I want joy, vitality and health as a non-dogmatic choice for everyone. I believe in our capacity to promote discourse that is transformative. To unveil mental illness, it is essential that those struggling do not remain hidden. Those affected must be embraced by the community as they are. We must be brave enough to lift their pain as a collective burden. A mentally robust society is possible when the healthy give the suffering a voice. 

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