by Shira Devorah, student staff at the Women’s Center (she/her)
Every student has their personal struggles that make being in college difficult – responsibilities and personal needs to attend to while also working towards a degree. Like many other students, I also face mental illness on top of every other responsibility.
I struggle with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADHD. These diagnoses do not define me, but they do tend to get in the way of my school day. Sometimes classes have to be skipped, assignments need to be pushed back and plans must be cancelled, all in the name of mental health.
As a woman with depression, I can’t always look happy for the sake of making someone else feel good, as stereotypical female empathy demands of me. I will not seem ‘flawless’ because sometimes I can’t remember to eat, let alone put on lipstick. I cannot be around people for an extended period of time without being exhausted. I am no less woman than someone without depression, but I have to work harder to be accepted by a sexist world as worthy of the title “woman.” This pressure is made more difficult when you factor in the fact that I am a full time student. I am expected as a student to do my best and succeed while also fitting into the tiny box of “womanness.”
Society presents a very limited definition for what a woman is “supposed” to be and look like and these strict gender roles rarely fit the dynamic and complex individuals we are, but they are even more inadequate for people of color, LGBTQIA-identified people, and people with mental illness and/or disabilities. Women students who navigate life with a mental illness have to deal with often unachievable standards, including the expectation of “effortless perfection.”
As a woman with mental illness, I have to work twice as hard to just appear “normal.” Putting on clothes, taking showers, eating enough, getting from point A to point B — these everyday activities can completely consume my time and energy. While the mere concept of normal is problematic, it is further complicated by the fact that I have to conform to the standards of being normal and a woman. Why do I have to go through the day existing as if I do not have a mental disability while also pretending that being a woman is effortless and easy? I don’t function in the normative ways that society demands of me. If I don’t look a certain way or act a certain way, am I not only less “normal,” but also less “woman?” Is normal just a synonym for being unobtrusive and invisible in my disabilities?
People often forget that looking the way society demands women to look takes a ton of effort. Being unwilling or unable to meet society’s expectations of femininity and beauty should not be seen as a failure or a sign that something is wrong.
The truth is, no one should have to fit into a category to be valid. You are a woman if you feel like a woman. Period. Amen. You don’t have to be hairless or made up or a certain size or have/not have certain body parts. You don’t need to have a healthy, thriving mind in order to be yourself. You just need to feel like a woman and that alone is enough to make you one.
I feel very lucky to be part of the Gender and Women’s Studies department, where we deconstruct these notions of gendered stereotypes and unfair expectations placed upon certain people. I have been taught in my studies to harness my uniqueness in order to subvert the expectations that a hegemonic world places upon me.
I do not apologize for my mental illnesses, and I am not quiet about them. I will tell anyone who will listen about my depression and anxiety. I will pop my Paxil or Ativan in the middle of class if I need it, and I will not bother to explain why I carry my prescriptions with me always. Personally, I choose to be open about my illnesses in hopes that discussions will cultivate a culture of understanding. I want to make my mental illnesses more visible to counter the idea that mental illnesses are inherently “bad” or not worth discussing.
Still, a lot of women with mental illnesses do not want to be subversive; they just want to be understood and included. These women do not owe the world their stories and still always deserve support. I have linked an article by Jess Myers, the director of the Women’s Center, if you want to read more about supporting people without knowing their story.
I am using this blog post to carve out a space to appreciate women who are also students with mental illnesses. You can have a diagnosis or you can just be realizing your illness. You can be medicated, in therapy, or not doing anything at all, and you are still valid. You can have accommodations, be a straight-A student, or be failing a course, and you still matter as a woman, as a person, and as a student. Mental illness is just one factor that in no way defines you.
We as students need to support each other and be mindful of the intersecting issues that our classmates face. Supporting someone with a mental illness can be challenging at times, but it can also be as easy as asking how somebody is. Maybe send a text asking your friend if she is doing alright. Or schedule a dinner with someone you know is going through a hard time. You could even offer to walk your classmate over to the Counseling Center if they need more professional help.
There are so many little things that we as peers and friends can do to help support each other and it can start with creating spaces where we feel like we don’t have to pretend to always be perfect.