"I was just me": Mental health & colonisation

02 Nov 2021

One of the places where colonisation can be seen as invisible and ongoing (not just an event that happened in the past) is in our modern approach to psychology in the Western world. The realm of thoughts and feelings has become medicalised as the colonial worldview has infiltrated every aspect of human life - the way we give birth (doctor-centred rather than birthing person-centred), the way we connect with each other (social isolation/ fragmentation/ racism/ classism), the way we eat (diet culture), the way we rest (glorification of ‘busy’). Modern psychology (and more specifically psychiatry) has pathologised the experience of mental health through the creation of ‘abnormal psychology’. This implies that there was/is a ‘normal psychology’ which fits perfectly within the colonial ideal of sameness. It reinforces that there is a ‘normal’ way of experiencing life, stress, grief, loss and makes certain people wrong when they don’t fit inside that normative box.

it was just me!

When people read my experience with suicidal behaviour in my book Everything I Do Not Know, one of the most common questions I receive is “Did you have depression?”

This bothers me because it reveals the way we have become conditioned to use mental health diagnoses as a way of avoiding the actual personhood of our friend, a character in a story, a person on the news. It’s like a diagnosis is a way of saying “Oh it wasn't really you then, it was your condition” and what I want to scream when I am asked this question is “I WAS JUST ME”.

All those feelings and thoughts that led me to that place were part of me. They were a natural and even normal response to the situation I found myself in, given the resources (inner and outer ) I had at the time. What benefit is there in placing a label on that, when we could learn so much from actually engaging with the experience (which is actually very common) as something that is within the normal range of our collective experience?

pathologising 'otherness' in mental health

In general, behaviours and experiences are pathologised when they don’t align with colonial ideals: sameness, productivity and emotional regulation/suppression (getting on with it). If a person can no longer just fit in and be productive because of their emotions, behaviours, thought patterns, then there must be something wrong with them. It is the person who is ‘to blame’ for not fitting in, rather than questioning the broader context in which that person exists, and the expectations society has of them. In most cases, these expectations are not reasonable, and the context of the person (their lived experience) provides clear rationale for why they have developed the patterns and coping mechanisms they have.

This is not to say that mental health diagnoses are not real (or helpful), but to bring a critical perspective to the way identifying with and glorifying diagnoses perpetuates the colonising force that needs to be dismantled in order for diverse psychological experiences to be more genuinely included in our world. This is also essential to create more holistic treatment and healing opportunities for people who experience

Diagnoses can be liberating IF they lead to:

  • Greater self awareness

  • Connecting with people with similar lived experience

  • Accessing treatment/medication that enhances wellbeing

BUT, diagnoses are also a form of oppression when they:

  • Create the idea that there is something ‘wrong’ with you

  • Reinforce a ‘normal’ way of thinking and feeling

  • Lead to feeling victimised or blaming (disempower the person)

  • Fail to see nuance and diversity within a person/group (label and generalise)

Your experience is enough

We’re moving into an era now of speaking out about our psychological struggles (as opposed to hiding them as was the way of the past). This is a profound shift away from shaming and suppressing emotional experiences, towards celebrating and including this diversity. The intention of being loud and proud about a diagnosis is beautiful - minimise stigma, increase awareness, create a world that is gentler and more aligned with the diverse emotional and cognitive experiences of the people within it.

BUT it’s also important to be aware that perpetuating the labelling is a form of colonisation in and of itself. It others. It reifies complex intangible experiences of the mind and heart and makes them clinical and pathological. It reinforces that there is a ‘normal’ way of experiencing life, stress, grief, loss and makes certain people wrong when they don’t fit inside that normative box.

How can we work towards a new way of navigating this space?

  • Speak from personal experience ONLY. “This is what I need, this is how I feel, this is the way I process, this is how this treatment helped me.” Rather than “because I have depression….”, “People with ADHD….”

  • Only speak of pathology/diagnosis where it:
    • increases awareness/self-awareness

    • creates connection with people with similar lived experience

    • enables access to treatment/medication that enhances wellbeing

  • As much as possible, tell our stories without labels.

Your experience is enough, without needing to be justified under the umbrella of a condition. It’s okay to just feel different or have different needs. Tell us what these are, share about what your reality is like. Telling our stories in this way allows for a much broader spectrum of people to identify with our story and increases inclusivity. We stop othering our self, and people who feel like us, by including our experiences within a cohesive narrative of who we are, rather than outside of our self under a different label.

There doesn’t have to be a dividing line between You and Your ADHD. It can just be you. You don’t have to box up your Post-Partum Depression and stash it away as if it were a different person who went through that. It can just be you. I am just me, my ongoing experiences of sadness, overwhelm, grief, worry are part of me, just as yours are part of you. There is so much power in reclaiming our experiences from the worldview of the coloniser.

We do not exist to be stable, productive, workers without complexity or unique needs. We exist to be messy, diverse expressions of life who create, connect and share so that we can learn, inspire, and be healed by one another.