4 Practical Mental Health Lessons From Tara Westover’s Memoir

Educated by Tara Westover chronicles her path to a Ph. D despite the abuse she endured. 

Westover grew up in a bleak Idahoan valley wrought with fear. Her father, who may have bipolar disorder, canned peaches to prepare for doomsday. As she navigates the world of academia, she must also cope with the legacy of childhood trauma.

Educated is a painful yet poignant account of untreated mental illness. Here’s what we can learn from her story.

A lack of healthcare impacts mental illness outcomes. 

To her father, doctors had turned medications into a “false god.” As a result, it was impossible for Westover to seek out psychiatric treatment despite having endured years of physical abuse. This attitude created years of suppressed trauma that resurfaced as nightmares and flashbacks once she moved away. 

Westover’s story also makes it very clear that patients do not have to exhibit bizarre, disruptive behavior to be mentally ill. 

It’s pretty common for TV shows and movies to vilify mentally ill characters. This stereotype is both incorrect and harmful. It only casts a stigma on those struggling with mental illnesses, as these patients face genuine struggles that the media tend to overlook. 

Westover’s own experience contrasts the stereotypical psychotic portrayal of mental illness. The author began to develop severe anxiety symptoms like night sweats, teeth grinding, unexplainable rashes, and panic attacks. In the third part of her book, it becomes evident that she is traumatized – drowning in her nightmares and screaming into the darkness. 

Even as she leads a new life in Harvard, fragments of her abuse – knives, hospital beds, stabbings – kept returning. 

Her experience with psychological trauma is a stark reminder that mental illness does not always entail dangerous, psychotic killers. She was the victim, not the villain. 

As she described the physical abuse she endured as a teenager at the hands of her brother, Shawn, one thing becomes clear:

She is both a victim and a survivor. 

The term “survivor” connotes strength and newfound hope in recovery. Too often, we like to think of recovery as linear, with a clear start and finish. However, like most abuse survivors, she is still plagued by her past even as she goes to Harvard to get her Ph. D. 

She was physically free from the abuse, but she was still psychologically chained to it. It’s an unfortunate reality that many survivors face. 

Her recovery, like many survivors of abuse, is complicated by gaslighting. As a result, her abuse remained hidden because her parents were unwilling to acknowledge that Shawn abused her. The gaslighting only deepened the pain of the trauma, as she received no familial support.

Too often, we leave abuse victims to suffer on their own when we don’t acknowledge their truth. By ignoring the abuse, we also leave them to process their enormously complex trauma on their own. 

The gaslighting she faced is a microcosm of what happens to survivors of abuse every day. They have to deal with the mental health stigma perpetuated by many films and TV shows in addition to a lack of mental health care coverage.

Despite the struggle with her past, the mere fact that she was able to write this memoir is a testament to her commitment to speaking out about her abuse. 

Featured Image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

3 COMMENTS

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