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  • Writer's pictureSista Afya

The 'Other'

How we marginalize people with mental health conditions.

Being told that you don’t belong because of the things that make you different is a feeling that most people can understand. I would venture to say that no one goes throughout their life without being criticized for their differences or the things outside of what mainstream society deems ‘normal’. There are some people who experience an escalated feeling of being cast out through people deeming them ‘other’.

Sociologist Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos defines Otherness as “Groups that are defined as being different from the norm, marginalised, fetishised or rendered invisible from mainstream society.” People struggling with mental health are a part of this otherness; especially those who are marginalized by other layers such as race, gender, ability, and socioeconomic status.

What ignited me to discuss how people with mental health challenges are othered was brought about by how mental health is discussed in mainstream media, in daily conversations, and through everyday actions. Every week, there is a news story about someone who committed a heinous act such as a mass shooting or some other act of violence. The first thing the media searches for are signs of mental illness. Once there is a public consensus that the person who committed the heinous act could be mentally ill, people either use it to affirm an underlying belief that only mentally ill people commit violence or that person lacks sympathy because they have mental health challenges.

Another instance, I see daily in conversations or on social media is the labeling of people who do things we don’t like as being mentally ill. A person who may be a little agitated or outspoken, especially Black women, can easily be labeled as ‘crazy’ or ‘mentally ill’ with no second thought and remorse. There is also a belief that people are capable of going through life with no circumstances or challenges that can impact them mentally. Folks can understand how the body is impacted by a cold or a broken leg but folks struggle with understanding how being constantly overwhelmed or being a survivor of trauma can take a toll on you mentally. This belief that experiencing challenges with our mental health is a weakness of character further pushes people who admit they need help to being ostracized.

At the core of making someone ‘the other’ is a harmful use of power.

In Western society, anything that is outside of a White cis-gender, middle-class heterosexual, Christian man is looked at as a problem and outside of normal. We can especially see the fruits of this in who occupies positions of power in politics, corporations, and other high-ranking positions that make decisions that impact the lives of millions. At the core of making someone ‘the other’ is a harmful use of power. In everyday actions, folks either on purpose or unconsciously use power to other those they see as outside of their normal box.

Until there is a shift in how we perceive people with mental health challenges, until we dismantle otherness, until we remove harmful ideas about their capabilities, and respect their humanity- people will suffer in silence and take longer to get healing care. Those who struggle to sustain mental well-being deserve to hold power and be valued.

We deserve to be other no more.

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