Lately, I have often pondered about how I feel when I am called an inspiration for fighting my mental illness (bipolar disorder), especially in such a public way. I have also thought a lot about how people see my work in mental health advocacy as inspiring. I agree that it might feel kind of strange when someone tells you that you, just being you, is inspirational. I have read a lot of articles from people with disabilities of all kinds who talk about this concept.
In my research into mental illness and disability over the years, I have observed some contention around this notion of being an inspiration. I have seen some interesting videos and posts from people with disabilities of all kinds who talk about this concept. Comedian and journalist Stella Young did a really great TED Talk on this called “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much”. She discusses “inspiration porn” which is the objectification of a group of people for the benefit of another. While she is most likely referring to physical disabilities, which are easier to spot and easier to objectify, I feel like people objectify those with mental illness all the time and that this idea applies to us as well. In this article by Morwenna Jones, she talks about how it upsets her to be called brave or courageous for talking about her eating disorder because it implies that those who don’t should be ashamed or are seen as weak. Interestingly, in a google search about this topic, I could only find this article. The rest of the search results were literally about the opposite, with headlines about inspirational people who talk about their mental illness.
I agree that people with mental illness and mental disabilities, if they choose, should be able to live their lives openly without being seen as extraordinary or special because of their illness. Perhaps they want to focus on other aspects of their identities. It can certainly be condescending and belittling for some people to be seen as inspiring simply for taking care of their health, as any other human might.
However, I’ve decided that personally, I love that people feel inspired by my life. Especially if they have their own mental illness. It makes me feel happy that I can empower others to end the stigma around mental illness. I feel energized and motivated myself to know that I am having an impact. I don’t want to speak for everyone with bipolar disorder or another mental illness, but being a mental health advocate is really difficult. It takes a lot of energy to put yourself out there and express your vulnerable feelings and emotions. So I feel validated when my words resonate with an audience and when they recognize my hard work. I like when people send messages of appreciation for the efforts that I am making to educate and motivate. I don’t think my mental illness in itself is inspiring, but I do think that sharing such a story is brave in this world that still judges people for having a mental illness. It is brave to challenge misconceptions and to speak up when most people just want you to stay silent. It is brave to publicize something that is messy and complicated and defies stereotypes. It doesn’t mean that people who don’t aren’t brave. Not everyone is meant to be in the spotlight. They are making their own contributions in their own unique ways.
The point I want to make is that I am glad that people feel inspired when they read about the experiences of those who are different than them. We need people to read about our stories of mental illness and disability so that together, we can collaborate to make change. I speak often about my bipolar disorder to ensure others feel less alone, but I also do it to perhaps kick people in the butt and push them to get involved in advocacy. Because simple erasing stigma just won’t be enough. Perhaps if someone is inspired by my story, they might make changes in their own workplace policies so that life can be better for people with mental illness. Perhaps if someone is inspired by my story, they might recognize that we need more spending on mental health resources. Perhaps if someone is inspired by my story, they might choose to dedicate their career to supporting people with mental illness.
I certainly think that we, as a society, can change the way that we react and deal with inspirational stories and people. We can also change which stories are seen as inspiring. We typically only share stories of people who are in a good place, who are in a recovery stage of their mental illness, who are thriving despite their mental health issues. However, people with mental illness often struggle for years without improvement. Or they might be feeling better for a little bit, but then their health deteriorates again. These people should be also seen as inspirational for fighting each day. The faces of mental illness that we often see in the media aren’t very diverse, in either race, ethnicity, sexuality or ability. As well, people who can present as almost “normal” are prioritized because they are more articulate and easier to interact with for people who have no experience with mental illness. I can definitely understand my privilege in this sense. On my good days, I am more palatable to people because I can be seen as “just like them” with a slight quirk.
When we think someone is inspirational, we need to be careful not to put them on a pedestal or patronize them. I know this is really not easy and is pretty complicated. For example, many people would argue that you shouldn’t tell someone with a disability they are inspiring for just getting by like all humans do or for accomplishing simple tasks. However, I know that sometimes I really enjoy celebrating accomplishing the mundane tasks that are so difficult when you have a mental illness. Sometimes even getting out of bed is an achievement and I wouldn’t mind if someone pointed out my efforts. So what can we do? How can we engage with someone we admire and who inspires us without offending them? The answer is not necessarily simple. My personal advice would be to try to be as specific as possible in why someone admires you and how they made you feel. Write a detailed message or say something that has meaning and impact instead of reducing your feelings to one word “inspirational”. The recipient of your compliment will better understand how you feel and how they influenced your life. It will be more personal and individualized and they will appreciate it so much more.
What do you think? Do you like when people tell you that you inspire them? Why or why not?