It is LIS Mental Health Week again, a chance for us to recognize that people who work in libraries and archives experience mental illness like literally everyone else does. You can see information about what has been planned for the week here: https://tinyurl.com/lismentalhealth19
This is the fourth year that we’ve organized the week. One criticism that I’ve heard from the beginning is that the stories shared seem to be mostly about relatively mild depression and anxiety. Does that distract from the needs of people who experience more serious forms of mental illness? Is this another case of people with relatively more privilege co-opting the conversation around visibility and liberation?
It’s a good question to consider. In one way, the numbers explain this disparity. NAMI indicates that 18% of of adults in the US have experienced anxiety in the past year, while only 2.6% live with bipolar disorder. (At the same time, they estimate that even more of us have a substance abuse disorder, and we very rarely see LISMH posts about addiction.) I am suspicious of the potential to exotify mental illness in a way that discounts the very real, very grueling effects on so many people — to divide us by saying some of us aren’t crazy enough to count. It seems important to discuss the types of mental illness that most of us will probably experience in our lifetimes.
At the same time, the stakes are way, way higher to disclose about more severe mental illness. I have never experienced psychosis, but based on what I have heard from friends who have, yeah, I see why you might not want to talk about it in public, especially in work environments. Talking about mental illness means talking about things that get in the way of your work, of your life. Things that are a part of you, but also disrupt how you show up in the world. Things that may make you vulnerable to retaliation and to violence. I’m thinking too about Mia Mingus’ work about moving toward the ugly as a form of love and liberation (h/t to Reed Garber-Pearson):
We must shift from a politic of desirability and beauty to a politic of ugly and magnificence. That moves us closer to bodies and movements that disrupt, dismantle, disturb. Bodies and movements ready to throw down and create a different way for all of us, not just some of us.
While Mingus is discussing physical disability, the idea of moving toward the ugly resonates as I think about mental illness as well. Mental illness disrupts, dismantles, and disturbs. We called it LIS Mental Health Week, not Mental Illness Week. I sometimes wonder if we have created a space for library and archives folks to share their exceptional stories: I was broken but now I’m fixed; I overcame my mental illness and now I can be a good worker; I can be crazy and still be a great librarian. How do we create a different way for all of us, not just some of us? “Self care” is so frequently fraught and co-opted by consumerism; employers have a vested interest in getting workers just healthy enough to keep working. How do we create space for the ugly of mental illness? How do we center the experiences of people most affected? Those are the questions I’m holding onto this week.
It makes me think of what I heard Harsha Walia say about the need for community care, not self care. Thanks as always to Cecily Walker for the idea that started all of this. I am grateful to Violet Fox, Kate Deibel, Abigail Phillips, Annie Pho, Nicole Gustavsen, Marisol Moreno Ortiz, and Katie Whitney, all of whom have helped with this year’s activities, including the Twitter chat and issue two of the comp zine Reserve and Renew (which you can order here!). I am also grateful to the individual folks sharing their stories, either online or face-to-face, and the ways that folks are building community. I am grateful for the work of folks like Amanda Leftwich, who created @mindfulinlis, and Miranda Dube and Carrie Wade as they put together a collection focused on mental illness in libraries and archives (the CFP is up through March 31, get in your submissions!). I am still reading The Body Keeps the Score, and I put some other books on hold. Looking forward to more thinking, talking, and community.