The problem of feminist mental health

Originally posted at The Radical Housewife.

In 1963, Betty Friedan dropped a bomb on American culture called The Feminine Mystique, a book that diagnosed untold millions of women with “the problem that has no name.”  The book kicked off the Second Wave of feminism, but if you’re a regular reader here you already know that.

What I want to talk about is another problem that, though it is named and we all know it exists, is rarely discussed openly in feminist circles: the stubborn problem of feminist mental health.   Everyone we know is on an antidepressant or twelve, yet we talk more about abortion, sexual assault, gender identity and other formerly taboo topics than we do our own addled minds.

Believe me, this is no royal “we” I’m utilizing here.  My own mental health, on unstable ground since my teens, has been in a slow decline for the better part of a year, due to factors both internal (genetic predisposition, hormone disregulation) and external (professional disappointment, thorny family issues, a friend’s terminal illness).  Like many other smart, capable, honest women I know, this is how I faced it:

Some time ago, I expressed my disgust over one body part or another (belly? batwings? blotches? pick ‘em) and a feminist friend stopped short.  “You?” she asked.  “You feel body shame?”

“Of course I do!” I replied.

“But,” she spluttered,  “you are such a GOOD FEMINIST!”

I laughed and told her I was a feminist because I have body shame, I know how much it sucks, and I want to stop it!  Duh!  I use this anecdote to illustrate something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: are feminists depressed/anxious because they’re feminists, or are they feminists because they’re depressed/anxious? Are we the chickens, or are we the eggs?

From childhood on I felt uneasy with cultural norms–I was always the only kid in my social circle who loathed the ending of “Grease.”  She changed for a guy?  Yuck!  We sensitive types recognize injustice more quickly and are attuned to suffering more deeply, so it makes sense that we would seek to participate in movements that are dedicated to ending injustice and relieving suffering.

We are chickens.  Depressives and anxiety fiends make great feminists.

The work of feminism, whether in action or in our own minds, is exhausting.  Being aware of oppression is a painful state.  In the phraseology of most popular philosophical text of the late 20th century, we swallowed the red pills, not the blue ones.  Additionally, feminism confronts the horrors of rape, sexual assault and abuse, domestic and dating violence and other REALLY REALLY AWFUL THINGS that over time become re-traumatizing.  A lot of the things I hear and know are very upsetting, and there are times when I just can’t fucking take anymore.

We are eggs.  Feminism can make you greatly depressed and anxious.

Oh lordy.  Pass me a doll, won’t you, love?

And what do you know: it’s red. How appropriate!

Like all GOOD (if not great!) feminists, however, I try not to paint everything into a binary box, so I am in no way suggesting that this is an either/or proposition: feminism and happiness are not mutually exclusive.  Why, one arm of the vast right wing conspiracy is dedicated solely to convincing women that we’d be better off in our pre-Friedan kitchens and baby nurseries, because all this agitating for equal rights is what’s making us so cranky!   Perhaps that is one reason that feminists like me have been cagey about admitting to emotional frailty.  Despite the fact that 11% of Americans take antidepressant medication these days, talking frankly about mental health care feels about as safe as walking down a dark alley, drunk, in nothing but filmy lingerie.

Didja get the analogy there?  In America today, the prevailing wisdom is that people with mental health challenges bear some of the blame for their condition.  As in, “yeah, no one deserves to be raped, but y’know, you really shouldn’t have been in that alley, drunk, in your underwear.”  Anorexics are told to EAT A SANDWICH.  The anxious are told to PRACTICE YOGA.  Addicts are told to QUIT ALREADY.  Depressives are told to SUCK IT UP FOR GOD’S SAKE, YOU’RE BRINGING ME DOWN.


This is the part of the blog post in which you, dear reader, usually discover the Great Lesson in all this, but today I don’t have one.  In fact, I’ve been putting off writing this blog post for weeks, hoping for a bolt of clarity, either intellectual or emotional, that has yet to strike.  I am eager to hear your thoughts on the matter, though, both as they relate to your own story and to the big-picture issue of keeping sane in a world that isn’t.

In any case, I’m resolved in 2012 to speak more frankly about my own struggles.  Will it be more or less difficult than my perennial resolutions to exercise daily and eat more green food (apple Laffy Taffy excepted)?

Watch this space to find out.

Join the Conversation

  • Genie Leslie

    I think this is a very interesting post. I haven’t had “official” mental health problems (at least not ones leading to medication, but I’ve also expressly avoided the therapist…) but both my sister and my mother have. I remember blaming my sister for her depression, maybe because I couldn’t SEE her problem. I just always thought, “Why won’t she get up already?” “Why won’t she just answer the phone?” “Why can’t she just call ahead to say she’s missing class/rehearsal/plans with friends instead of just disappearing into her room?” But when I found myself working at a summer camp in a job that I hated, waking up to start crying immediately, and counting down the days til the end of each session, I suddenly realized the position she’d been in and how hard it was to reach out to others, especially when people don’t talk about it or tend to blame you for it.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Thank you very much for this. I’ve dealt with mental health problems for much of my life, and have one of those diagnoses they say can be “managed” and “treated” but not cured. And as you’ve said, there’s already a lot of stigmas and misconceptions about mental illness as it stands. I recently read a critique of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”

    Then on top of that, it also seems that somewhere along the way there developed this idea of a feminist “superwoman” – she’s always confident about herself, always loves her looks and body as they are, never has self-doubt, never pines over relationship troubles (especially not if she’s in a relationship with a guy), only feels anger over proper social issues and always channels said anger constructively. She’s not allowed to be human or make mistakes. In it’s own way this paradigm can restrict some women as much as the patriarchal expectations put on us. I don’t think anybody feels that good about themselves and perfect all the time, and if you throw mental health issues into the mix?

    Early in the year someone sent me a link to a critique on a feminist site of “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (can’t remember the link, but if anyone’s curious I’ll comb my FB for it). I had not yet seen either adaptation or read the books, but I recall being really bothered that one of the critics complaints was that the character couldn’t be a “true” feminist heroine because she was mentally unstable and hated her body (apparently in the books Lisbeth thinks she’s too skinny?) I just had to wonder, fictional characters aside, does being mentally unstable mean someone can’t be a feminist? And to get intersectional here, isn’t thinking so just a touch ablist?

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      Sorry that “Dragon Tattoo” thought repeated in the first and third paragraph, I was interrupted while typing my response to this.

  • Sarah Dropek

    Love this post. So. Much. It’s great to hear of other feminists’ exhaustion and difficulties and to allow ourselves to not define feminism as having to always be “on the ball” and “sexism watchdog” or “free of all insecurities” !

    I’d recommend two books to anyone who gets a little bogged down sometimes in the difficulty of it all or needs a pick me up as we wade through the more upsetting aspects of humanity that we so badly want to change! “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde has always been a source of comfort me because she is so open about her struggles and others and unapologetic about them, it’s great! Another one I’m in the middle of reading is “To Be Real” which is a collection of feminist essays about people struggling with allowing the definition of “a feminist” to be fluid and multi-dimensional and personal for everyone. There is no “perfect” feminist and to think so hurts all of us, and this book explores how individuals navigate feminism for themselves and is extremely inspiring and honest.

    Give them a read and hopefully it will inspire you and comfort you that other feminists struggle and become disheartened from time to time! And brew a cup of tea, because that’s just great too :)

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    I’d have to be the exception, not the rule here. Sorry to disappoint.

    I don’t have any mental health problems, or at least not in the way of mood disorders (I do hear voices, and they all seem to have personalities of their own, but that might be because they’re characters in the fiction I write, so that doesn’t seem to count as a problem, IMHO) I’m not prescribed medication, and I don’t see a doctor. In fact, I used to see one (at my parents authority) when I was still underage and not allowed to make my own decisions. I was much more unhappy back then than I am today, having stopped going.

    On the note of why, there are a few things that make fighting any kind of depression (clinical or otherwise) more possible without a doctor’s help. Exercise, the right diet, and having orgasms (with or without the assistance of a S.O.) change the way your brain fires. Upping what you read and other mental exercises and brain teasers are there for fun, and having more significant conversations with your friends has been proven to somehow improve your moods. And it is a challenge to overcome defeatism from everything we read about, today. A good way to fight it is by indulging in the arts, at least enough to remind yourself that not all people are horrific, uncaring, fascist, anti-woman, gay-bashing, puppy-killing scum.

    Hope it helps!

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      How does this make you an exception? A person who states they have no mental health issues telling others what they need to do to fix depression? That’s what at least part of this article addresses. That doesn’t disappoint though, I just see things that have some grain of truth in them, and others that don’t.

      It’s not that any of these suggestions are even bad ones, they’re all things I do and they each have their own merits, whether someone is depressed or not. But I do have to point out this–I’m in the arts community, and most of my friends and colleagues are as well. Most of these people don’t just “indulge” in the arts, they devote their entire lives to art, making it, taking in the art of others, thinking about new ways to look at art and consider it. Yet a number of them, as well as many of the artists I tend to personally admire most, have had their share of mental health travails.

      So in closing, indulging in the arts in any capacity is a good thing, it will expand your mind, enrich your life, and it can affect your mood, though not solely always in an uplifting way, but it won’t make a mental health issue go away.

      I think collectively our culture needs to shake off the idea also of the person with such a condition either succumbing and being held hostage to it, or fighting it off and never letting it affect them again. A lot of us learn to live with these conditions, work around them, in some cases even work with them – for example, as with making art.

      • Jacqueline Hentzen

        I said it will HELP… not that it was a magic bullet pill.

        As for the other things you said — I dunno. I’ve seen examples both way. Personally, I’d like to think that our biology is NOT the final determiner in our destiny. After all, that’s one of the ideas behind feminism — just because you’re female doesn’t preclude what you’ll do, think, and feel for your whole life. It’s the same with mental problems. Shit, I was diagnosed with a learning disorder when I was a kid and put on meds for that. Come my 18th birthday, I stopped taking the meds, went to college was told I could basically get affirmative action for that… and I didn’t take it. And I still had some awesome grades. It’s the same thing. I really do think that what goes on in your head is totally in your control.

        • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

          It’s certainly more in your control when you stop taking their medicines (at best those are a brief flash of short term fix…but I found what they did in many ways far worse)!

          I’d agree that biology doesn’t determine our destiny, but then again I’m a person who doesn’t believe in predestination, so I suppose that’s par for the course. As for whether what happens in one’s head is “totally” in their control (with so much more to learn about neuroscience, or even the workings of the subconscious, who’s to say at this point in time?), living with a condition like this, about all I can say is, some days are better than others, and I’ve found my ways through trial and error to work with it, which I think is essentially what Shannon is asking in this article – to go through her processes without having her feminism questioned, along with the other usual things people say.

          • Jacqueline Hentzen

            Well, in response to having one’s feminism questioned, I say ‘Who are you trying to prove it to?’ You owe nobody an explanation but yourself, and anyone who questions your credibility can kiss it. So… I dunno, whatever.

  • jayn

    Personally, being a feminist has always been a bit of a ‘duh’ thing for me. Women and men are equal–I’ve always held that to be a self-evident truth.

    What depression does is push me to be more active and focused about it. I’m angry at the things that make me and other people suffer, and I want to change them. I want to make the world a better place so that other people don’t wind up feeling like I do. I need medication to be able to function normally, and I can trace that need back to people being unwilling to accept others for who they are. I can’t be myself without outside help anymore, and that’s so fundamentally wrong that I need to change things, if not for myself then for others who are in danger of being in the same position I’m in.

  • Mollie

    I think it’s really hard to tell what came first- the chicken or the egg.

    I have always been very liberal and bothered by sexist/racist/homophobic comments and media, but I never realized I was a feminist until college. In high school I had a very bad eating disorder for over 2 years. I recovered on my own, and shortly after I found the Women’s and Gender Studies program at my college. Feminism has helped me heal. It has made me realize that my insecurities were not a result of my personality, but a result of the toxic media I was constantly surrounded by. Although sometimes facts that feminism strives to surface can be devastating, I think it’s better to know. It’s empowering, and it allows us to be active agents instead of passive bystanders. Feminism has been so good for me- being involved is so empowering! Love your post.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    In response to:

    Well, in response to having one’s feminism questioned, I say ‘Who are you trying to prove it to?’ You owe nobody an explanation but yourself, and anyone who questions your credibility can kiss it. So… I dunno, whatever.

    I think it might not be so much a matter of her trying to prove it as looking at the kinds of trivial things that lead people to question feminism in the first place, and what that says about cultural perceptions of feminism, and in tandem with mental health issues, maybe how it intersects with certain forms of ablism.