Some stories are hard to tell, but chances are those are the ones that desperately need to be heard.
We far too often have an aversion to using individual stories as a way to understand societal problems and enact change. There is this misguided idea that the experiences of one person cannot and should not shape the way that we interact with others, because that person only speaks for themself.
I believe that this is emblematic of a great problem that we have with not trusting people’s own personal accounts of their experiences and identities. We are quick to dismiss people’s stories as exaggerated or fabricated with a specific agenda. However, if we were to truly listen to people’s stories, we would learn that these accounts are far more useful in changing how we approach the world than trying to assume what is best for others. Stories, when it comes down to it, are the best information that we have to inform our lives.
Take, for example, the issue of mental illness (or, the more approachable term, “mental wellness”) on our campus. This past year has no doubt seen a huge amount of discussion around what we as students can do to improve mental health at Penn. Unfortunately, these discussions have relied far too much on our own personal experiences (or lack of) with mental illness rather than sharing our stories and listening to one another.
College sophomore Bridget (who wished to be referred to by a pseudonym) says that she has been frustrated with the way that mental health issues have focused mostly on people without mental illnesses over the past several months at Penn.
“I don’t want to spend my time listening to people talk about how to act around people like me,” she says. “We need to use the experiences of people with mental illnesses to shape how we go about enacting change.”
Bridget was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent several days this semester at the In-Patient Psych Department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “That’s something I don’t tell anyone, even though I should be able to tell my friends. I shouldn’t have to worry that people are going to react badly.” What happens then, when we rely on people extrapolating without hearing real personal stories, is that we get an over-simplified view of the situation. In the case of mental health, everything then boils down to “stress.”
Bridget sees this over-simplified understanding all around, not just among students. “While I was in the hospital, every nurse was like, ‘Is the school getting to you? Are you stressed out?’ I’m not stressed out; I have a mental illness. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. My classes are fine. I love them. When people don’t listen to others’ experiences, we fail in accomplishing what needs to get done.”
It is possible — and absolutely necessary — to use individual stories to form our opinions and approaches to issues in our lives. While it may seem like a daunting task to take hundreds or thousands of personal accounts into mind, we must remember that we do this all the time with other issues.
We may reassure each other that it’s important to know your work limits, but we often feel ashamed to admit that we are only taking four classes this semester. We may feel comfortable talking about statistics of violence faced by minority populations, but we often shy away from sharing our personal experiences of facing marginalization here at Penn. We have no trouble telling each other over and over again how stressed we are, but we are hesitant to talk about taking anti-depressant medication.
Now, it’s important to recognize that this situation cannot merely be fixed by each of us mustering up the confidence and bravery to boldly tell our stories. The “fault” (if there is really fault in this situation) does not lie with the individuals who keep their experiences to themselves. We need to make it so that others feel that we provide a safe space in which they can share their personal experiences.
At Penn, groups such as Penn Monologues, whose 2014 production is this Saturday and Sunday in the ARCH, provide a space where Penn students’ stories are celebrated. We can all do the type of work that Penn Monologues does by being the types of friends, partners, acquaintances and peers that are genuinely interested in what’s going on in others’ lives so that we can all feel more comfortable sharing our stories with one another.
Roderick Cook is a College sophomore from Nesquehoning, Pa., studying gender, sexuality and women’s studies. Their email address is email@example.com.