Twenty-three years ago, a woman by the name of Kamala Dasinghani did something you and I would still consider unprecedented. Valedictorian of Dartmouth’s Class of 1994, she revealed that she suffered from an eating disorder during her four years of college. It was only a sentence of acknowledgment, because then her speech reverted back to those you would expect to hear at any graduation. But that one sentence remains more potent than many current efforts of destigmatizing mental illness. She acknowledged her anorexia so publicly, well aware that it could shatter the illusion of perfection that she had spent her life building.
Dasinghani, who went on to study medicine at Harvard, died last year. I hadn’t even heard about her until an obituary made it to the frontpage of Yahoo this week, three months after her death. Her passing was barely a blip; as far as I could find, the only news organization that reported it was the Boston Globe. The choice to mention her eating disorder in public was so ahead of its time and should remain an inspiration for how we approach similar topics. In an ideal world, more people who face mental illness should be able to address their struggles that openly. A year after Dasinghani’s graduation, a piece written by the LA Times said the speech was considered “inappropriate, unintellectual or applicable only to women,” wherein lies the problem.
And here’s where I drop the s-word: stigma. Because no mental health conversation can truly be a mental health conversation until you use that buzzword. The truth is that stigmas are driven by stereotype and stereotypes are driven by stigma. So many people don’t speak up because they don’t fit into the pigeonholes society created years ago, before there was enough research and resources. In a touching article about his depression, Terrell J Starr touched on the fact that 10 percent more African Americans view depression as a weakness than any other race. He coined the hashtag #blacksuicide, realizing it’s this kind of lack of conversation that holds us back.
There are not enough narratives to humanize the harrowing statistics that are repeated in every assembly or political press conference. Statistics are cold, lifeless numbers that do not touch on the reality of mental illness, the emotional gnawing, endless anxiety, or general hopelessness. There lies a logical fallacy that acknowledging the “stigma” of mental health will be enough to solve the problem.
Like the 12-step program for recovering from addiction, step one is admitting that we, as a nation and a world, have a problem. The next step, I believe, is to make it personal. To realize that these diseases are not arbitrary problems, but instead might affect your friend, sibling, beloved Bi-Line columnist, or favorite Skins character. Eating disorders have no face, no gender, no race, and to believe that they do is a dangerous practice that prevents people from seeking treatment. They’re not even always thin. By keeping the poster child a skinny, pale girl, we allow others who are suffering to slip through the cracks and fend for themselves.
By not speaking about personal experiences, we allow stereotypes to describe a nuanced disease. Anorexia is not just a low body weight. It’s headaches and anxiety and endless coldness. It’s hair loss and low iron levels and irritation. We see people suffering and we just assume they’re vain, putting themselves before their family, and obsessed with their bodies. And while this can be true, it should also be known that eating disorders can stem from much more.
The onset of Dr. Dasinghani’s eating disorder was when she lost her spot as high school valedictorian. While it’s true that only one person can have that honor, it was gut-wrenching to someone whose academic career exemplified perfection. She described the experience as “falling from my pedestal… which I might never recover.” Academia was her haven when the real world included a lack of identity—she was born to an East Indian father and a “typical WASP” mother— and her parents’ uneasy marriage. Like many others who coped with eating disorders, she turned to food as something she could control. This is a common origin story of eating disorders- an inherent need to control something when everything in your life is spiraling out of control.
Considering 10 percent of Americans suffer from eating disorders, statistically these signs probably sound familiar. They often manifest themselves in stressful social times, making middle school and high school particularly vulnerable times. Mental health education and resources are especially imperative in these formative years. But educate students beyond statistics and facts. Tell them more than “1.5 percent of American women suffer from bulimia,” and dare to venture into EDNOS and lesser known, but still highly prevalent disorders like orthorexia. The latter is not a disorder widely talked about, because it was only coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1996, defined as “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.” It sounds counterintuitive, but the obsession around clean-eating is all around us.
When I was in middle school, I stopped drinking soda and eating baked goods and fried food, then cut out entire food groups in a warped attempt to perfect myself with food. Eating anything besides my predetermined list of “good foods,” and not knowing the calories, sodium, and trans fat in every bite I took, caused full-out panic. In this manic quest to achieve perfect health, you can lose yourself.
I choose to write about my own experience because I feel as if I have nothing to lose. I would not be the first at Westminster to talk openly about mental health, and this article is my appreciation for the students who stood on stage two years ago to talk about Active Minds and their own mental illnesses. Though guilty thoughts still swim around in my brain when I eat my “bad foods,” I consider myself recovered. This article is written for those who talked about their depression and anxiety aloud, albeit in a less public setting. Who confided in me as a friend, knowing I could do nothing but support them, yet sharing anyway.
I suspect the reason that we don’t discuss our mental health problems is because we’re scared of people judging us. It’s not the kind of judging that happens overtly, like people pointing and whispering (but seriously, when has that ever happened outside of a stock photo photoshoot or 2000’s teen movie?). It’s more of an uncomfortable truth you don’t want people to ever know about you. Our grades indicate excellence, our online presence curated to perfection. Nobody in Dasinghani’s life demanded perfection, yet she expected it of herself. Whether you’re recovered of not, sharing a mental illness makes you vulnerable. It tells people you’re not who they thought you were, and that can be confusing.
With the stigma that surrounds mental health we rarely talk about the positives, like recovery. You can overcome one of the biggest emotional obstacles of your life, and yet still not feel comfortable enough to share it. A person’s recovery in anything, whether eating disorders or narcotics, should be a moment of pride because it inspires those still in the cracks.
In the beginning of the year, among speeches about Brexit and trade, Prime Minister Theresa May promised to add mental health training in schools and committed herself to ending mental health discrimination in the workplace. It is too early to know whether or not she’ll follow through, but her vow to increase resources show promise, a concrete guarantee that citizens can hold her to. To ensure that the investment in mental health resources is effective, you need people willing to seek help, or at least recognize that they have a problem.
While society doesn’t add nearly enough narrative to the mental health discussion, the media is filling that gap with spot-on depictions. As some of you may know, I love Skins UK, and I give kudos to creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain for adding an authentic voice to the teenage years. Many scenes are inflated, dramatized versions of feelings and experiences we can relate to thanks to the teenage consultants who helped write the show. You either love or hate Hannah Murray’s portrayal of Cassie, a bubbly, slow-spoken anorexic. She remains my favorite character, simultaneously tragic, selfish, and dreamy in the face of her disorder. In her actions you see the daily life of someone plagued by the desire to be thin. In a particularly memorable scene, she reveals her foolproof methods in convincing everyone that she’s “totally better,” including distracting conversation and lots of subject changing. Her relapses reflect absentee parents and a troubled love life more than they do genuine body dysmorphia.
USA Network’s Mr. Robot has nabbed two Golden Globes for its intricate storylines concerning hacktivist group society, but doesn’t shy awsy from the authenticity of Elliot Alderson’s mental illness. Usually movies and TV shows vilify dissociation, or include mental illnesses for a shallow, convenient backdrop, the way some shows use people of color to play stereotypes to fulfill “diversity.” Mr. Robot instead welcomes the vagueness of Elliot’s somewhat unidentified illnesses from a first-person point of view. We see the toll his illness has on family and friends, and even encounter his relationship with therapy. Having to rely on the unreliable narrator to tell a convoluted story is a genius premise, which coupled with Rami Malek’s portrayal means we’re all singing creator Sam Esmail praises. He consults with psychiatrists and cyber specialists to finally give authenticity to two underdogs of television.
All this being said, we’ve come a long way in awareness. Thirty-two years ago, it took the death of pop superstar Karen Carpenter to begin the public discussion on eating disorders. Her heart, weak after overuse of Ipecac, a vomit-inducer, simply gave out. We lost half of one of pop music’s greatest duos because of the shame that surrounded anorexia. Then, the extent of public knowledge was to shove food in patients’ faces and hope they’d eat something. Now, we have scientists studying mental health and more people willing to talk about it. We have body positive campaigns and entire fields of research centered on the how’s and why’s this disease happens.
I don’t know how to stop the epidemic of mental illness, but I think it starts with discussion. I’ve written this not because it’s senior year and I should leave no leaf unturned, but because I feel that individual input is necessary to make the issue personal. Because I’ve heard snippets of conversations from people who should feel safer to talk about their eating disorders. I hope that at least this makes it just a bit easier to join the discussion.
Thank you to Dr. Dasinghani for shattering the illusion of perfection that you spent your life building, for stimulating that conversation. I will owe you more than you could ever know. And to anyone else who adds to the dialogue amidst your own struggle- you are changing the game.