Screw Your Ph.D.: How ‘Positivity’ In Mental Health Can Be Toxic & Harmful

I am a disability advocate. Having a disability myself, I understand it’s not as simple as people make it seem. I am always pretty cautious around people who speak about mental health, but I’m getting better. So, when I heard my work had arranged a guest speaker for my team’s meeting to discuss mental health and stress, I was excited!

The door opened, and a long-haired woman walked in, draped in long sheer clothing, bangles on each wrist, smelling of patchouli and sandalwood. She spoke very softly. I was intrigued. After about 5 minutes into her presentation, she lost me.

In the midst of talking about “positivity” and “removing negative people from your life”, I began to feel a little uncomfortable.

Some of us aren’t the happiest of people. To feel like a burden and to be cast away, felt a little rude – a little isolating. But maybe she didn’t mean it that way, so I shook my head to rid myself of my thought, gave her the benefit of the doubt, and continued to listen. She spoke of how, if we are positive and use the power of “the secret” and the “law of attraction”, we can truly achieve anything we want. I think she even used “President” as an example.

Okay… come on. With positivity, we can do anything? What a quack. How are you going to completely dismiss the social barriers that inhibit people from moving forward? And institutions that seek to push people down? It’s not just about us – it’s about what surrounds us. But okay, yeah I guess I see what you’re saying – I have used a vision board once… but you really can’t take this that far without acknowledging other “powerful” forces at play. Obviously, there is a reason why there hasn’t been a female president… get real. Those conversations are worth having too.

I started to squirm in my seat, but I looked around and everyone else in the room seemed to be enjoying the workshop. I felt isolated again. Why am I such an asshole? And why am I so critical and negative? Why can’t I just let the woman talk without fighting her in my mind?

Shut the fuck up, Chantal. Just give it a chance.

So, I listened more closely.

She began to give examples as to why people are not happy – don’t have the job they want, the car they want, the money they want, the life they want. It was all very Ted-talky – and she blamed them. She blamed them for attracting “negative” energy to come and swoop down and ruin their dreams.

I was stumped. Speechless. How can you say that? People can’t just “wish” themselves out of systematic poverty or generational trauma; so much is outside of our control. It’s complicated and we do the best we can. She talked about how disgusting and poor anxiety is – how depression is like a monster. Woah, woah, lady. Fuck you. That might be your experience, but do not speak for me. My mental health is a shapeshifter – it is complicated, complex, nuanced, and I don’t even claim to understand it. But it is acceptable, not condemnable.

The last straw revealed itself as an innocent bullet point in her power point – encouraging us to stay away from all drugs to cope with mental health or stress. And to stay away from the “drama” of the world. Did she just conceptualize world-issues to drama to stay away from, like we are in ninth grade?

Well, I like my meds, thank you very much. What works for me might not work for you. We can’t all just “cure ourselves” with rose water and turmeric, you little asshole. Yes, meds might be a Western medicine, a western notion, and I understand the contributions I am making the Big Pharma. I get how exploitative it is, but it helps me too. So, do not judge me. Do not tell me I don’t need it. That is not your call to make.

My arms remained crossed, I was breathing heavy, trying to push down an anxiety attack.

I felt my blood boiling, my heart racing. Moreover, I was contemplating – throwing the idea to speak up so much I got dizzy. I didn’t say a word. I sat there trying to tame myself.

To end the workshop, she wanted us to mediate. Oh yeah, I feel super relaxed now. Let’s meditate. I kept my posture rigid, which I got called out for as a way to ‘lock’ energy from flowing through me. Yeah, fuck off, lady. I kept my eyes open as a subtle boycott. She needed to know how dangerous and demeaning her words were. I wanted to educate her despite her Ph.D. status. I wasn’t afraid of her. Bring it on. But I said nothing.

In the end, she made a snide comment about how if there is negativity in the room: she can feel it from a mile away. It’s like a strong horrible aurora – and with those words, she looked right at me. Gee thanks – just what I needed after sitting here and having you put me through the wringer of emotions. All the while trying to stay “cool” and “professional” in the workplace. I deserve an Oscar for that performance.

Everyone seemed to love her little presentation. They talked about how relaxed they felt and how great of a public speaker she was. How she needs to come back. I said nothing. None made the connections I had made and I felt so alone again.

I always leave with the thought that “maybe I’m the problem”.

Image credit by Ayo Ogunseinde

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