“Did you hear some girl tried to kill herself over a guy?”
I shook my head, well aware that the students perpetuating this campus-wide gossip had no idea that I was the reality behind the myth. From the comfort of my Intro to Sociology classroom, I had learned about Howard Becker’s labeling theory and how self identity can be affected by deviant labeling. Little did I know then, I’d soon come to understand labeling from the acute perspective of an insider, namely that of the mentally ill. Within a few short weeks, I’d be in a psych ward.
The circumstances leading up to this incident involved a miscommunication between me and a faculty member of Residential Life. Based on a text message I’d sent to a boy, telling him that he was so insensitive that I could kill myself and he’d probably laugh, the faculty member had ended up calling an ambulance without my permission. Admittedly, the message was overly dramatic, but I wasn’t suicidal. However, the faculty member did not want to take any chances and believed I might injure myself. Thus, the night of October 15th, I acquiesced and admitted myself into an urban hospital.After arriving, I signed a contract stating that I would have to spend a minimum of three days before being released. I got my picture taken for a hospital ID card and sat in a waiting room that smelled like urine. By the time I got to the room, there were three others: two Hispanic women and one African American woman who all appeared to be middle aged. We sat in silence as we were told those who refused to take meds were considered “uncooperative.” Eventually, the nurse explained that she had put me on an anti-depressant, Celexa, which I didn’t end up needing, and, ironically, has been linked to a number of teen suicides in the press.
Waking up in the hospital that first morning was an experience to rival an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I looked down at my mismatched outfit. I had worn my “Love is So Last Year” shirt and completed my look with too-large sweatpants. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the most appropriate shirt to wear to a psych ward, but it had matched my mood the night before. Now, I was wearing shapeless khaki pants and my first day in the hospital was dragging along with the second hand of the clock: 7 am blood pressure check, breakfast with the other patients at 8, gym at 10, lunch at 12, and arts and crafts at 2. The rest of the day was far less eventful with a choice between attending a therapy group or a lecture with an invited speaker, a 6 o’clock dinner, and at 10 the dayroom closed with some last-minute appointments squeezed in with hospital psychiatrists and psychologists. After a few days, the schedule became an internal clock.
In group therapy, I sat in a hastily created circle of folding chairs as two psychiatrists led the session. Miriam1, a 70 year old African American woman wearing a scarf on her head, Harry Potter style gold rimmed glasses, and multiple rosaries, began by saying that her treatment for mental illness had split her family in two: those for and those against it, and how she had been in so many mental hospitals that she legitimately had no opportunity to maintain any form of employment. Don, a sixtyish white male and former prisoner with temper issues and a countenance eerily like Jack Nicholson, complained how before he went to prison he had tried to run for a local political office, but had to drop his campaign when his opponent dug up his history of bipolar disorder. Then Martin, a white, bipolar man in his thirties with a skin pigmentation condition, vented about how he hated when he had intense mood swings, because it created a persona that was “not him” and made him the butt of family jokes. Finally, Marco, a Hispanic man in his twenties with cornrows and a soft voice, explained how people assume that those with mental illness are of lesser intelligence, how people treated him like he was dumb. Everyone related how other people’s negative views of mental illness had caused them stress and had affected the quality of their lives. And most noted struggling with maintaining feelings of self-worth in light of this deviant labeling.
After a week, I was finally dismissed from the hospital—and my education—after the University arranged for my mom to pick me up from school. In the process, the University had banned me from campus. Their official policy was merely “to handle students on an individual basis,” but in practice, any student who was admitted to a psych ward was automatically expelled. I was appalled that even the label “mental illness” could have such devastating effects for an individual’s pursuit of an education.
Despite my expulsion, I eventually managed to return to school with the help of an attorney and evaluations from six psychologists and psychiatrists stating that I, in fact, had no mental illness. Unfortunately, I had missed three weeks of school, and it was difficult trying to make up the work I had missed while simultaneously handling the varied negative reactions I got from my peers. Some friends avoided me. Others stopped talking to me altogether.On the last day of our Intro to Sociology class, we had an opportunity to discuss sociological issues that had affected us personally. It had been a few weeks since the “incident,” but the whole affair was still fresh enough in my mind to bring it to the class. I talked a lot about stigma and labeling, and, in presenting my personal experience, I emphasized how the label of mental illness can make life infinitely more complicated. Sociologists like Bruce Link and his colleagues have shown that one response that mentally ill patients develop to cope with others’ negative labeling is to try to educate others on the realities of mental illness. Maybe that’s what I was doing.
I also speculated that students had enjoyed repeating the story (my story), because it set them apart from someone they labeled “deviant,” “different,” or “crazy.” As sociologists Ralph Rosnow and Gary Alan Fine have noted, gossip, whether or not it’s based in fact, serves a need for gossipers, raising their own senses of status or esteem in comparison to the subject of their chatter and labeling.
The class seemed to really listen to what I had to say about what it was like walking in the footsteps of someone socially excluded. Some even went so far as to ask for the name of a charity that works with the mentally ill so that they could get involved. I could tell from the astounded look in their eyes that, by sharing my experience, I’d managed to become the link between what had been a remote social issue and reality, and it seemed as though they respected me—“the crazy girl who tried to kill herself”—all the more.
- Patients’ names have been changed to retain anonymity [↩]