“A Place at the Table” a guest post by Akemi Dawn Bowman
I’ve struggled with my mental health for as long as I can remember. Similar to the title character in Harley in the Sky, I was either up or down, and never in the middle. I was often chasing a romanticized version of happiness, and then crashing very suddenly into a void of depression. My family didn’t understand me, and therapy was not something that was available to me as a teen, which meant getting a diagnosis wasn’t an option.
For a handful of years, I existed in the strange limbo of having a mental illness and living with all its messiness and complications, but not feeling like I was allowed to call it a mental illness. It didn’t matter how much I was hurting, or struggling, or failing to cope—on paper, there wasn’t a word for what I was going through, because I wasn’t in therapy.
As an adult, I had the opportunity to speak to someone, who gave me a formal diagnosis and helped me work through treatment options. But until that point, it had just been me, learning to cope in ways that felt right, and struggling with the balance of not really feeling okay, but somehow feeling like I wasn’t allowed to complain. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Because I didn’t have a label; I didn’t have someone who signed a piece of paper with a list of words that all added up to “mental illness.” And I certainly didn’t have the support or financial means to seek care any earlier than I did.
Making yourself understood in a society that isn’t always understanding towards people with mental illness can be difficult. Some people are simply ignorant. Some people want to make their own rules about which forms of mental illness they’re willing to acknowledge, and which ones they aren’t. And some people seem to think that a diagnosis is what legitimizes a mental illness, and if they don’t have the right label, they’re either attention-seeking or overly-dramatic—or maybe even a liar.
And that’s not what an inclusive space is supposed to look like.
This kind of gatekeeping leaves people like teen me behind. It forces us out of the important conversations about mental health, and makes us feel like we don’t have a place at the table. Like we haven’t earned it, on the basis that we weren’t professionally diagnosed.
It also fails to acknowledge that therapy—and health care in general—is a privilege.
There are many people in the world who don’t have the access or ability to receive a formal diagnosis. It isn’t affordable to everyone, and teens are overwhelmingly dependent on their parents and caregivers when it comes to seeking professional help for their mental health. If their families aren’t supportive, or therapy isn’t an option financially, then treatment may not be available to them.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a mental illness. It doesn’t mean they aren’t still struggling with depression and anxiety and mood disorders. They may not have the label, but their experiences are real.
As someone who writes for teens and about teens, I always try to center an honest experience of what it felt like to be that age, going through similar challenges, and feeling so alone. My hope is that by talking about it, I can build a bridge for people who are in the same position, who feel left behind and misunderstood.
There are so many stigmas when it comes to mental health, and if we’re going to break them down, we need to give people space to talk about their mental health in whatever capacity feels right and safe for them. People experience things differently. And I think that’s important too—to show that mental health can vary between individuals, and that there isn’t a single right way to cope, or heal, or process. Therapy and medication can be necessary and life-saving for so many people, while also feeling like the wrong solution for others. If we try to force people into thinking mental health is a one-size-fits-all, we’ll end up creating a space that makes people with differing experiences feel unwelcome. And the fact is, there isn’t a single “right” way to have a mental illness.
Books about characters who go to therapy, take medication, and have a formal diagnosis are important. And so are books about characters with less privilege who are struggling with their mental health and don’t know exactly what to call it. Both experiences are valid, and one isn’t more important than the other.
At the end of the day, the main purpose of a diagnosis is for mental health professionals to come up with treatment plans and coping mechanisms for their patients. Labels don’t exist to box people in, or push them out. And I think if we claim to be advocates of mental health, we need to understand that not everyone’s lived experiences looks identical. What’s right for one person may be wrong for another. And that’s okay.
There’s space at the table for everyone, label or not. The important thing is to talk about it—the good, the bad, the messy, and everything in between. And remember that whatever you’re feeling, and whatever you’re going through, you are not alone.
Akemi Dawn Bowman is the author of William C. Morris Award Finalist Starfish, Summer Bird Blue, and Harley in the Sky. Her upcoming sci-fi series, The Infinity Courts, is set to release in 2021, followed by her middle-grade debut, Generation Misfits. A proud Ravenclaw and Star Wars enthusiast, she has a BA in social sciences from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She currently lives in Scotland with her husband and two children.
You can find Akemi at:
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About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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