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When Singlism Turns Dangerous: The National Alliance on Mental Illness September 25, 2020

Posted by Onely in Food for Thought.
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The National Alliance on Mental Illness published an article about smiling depression that was good, except for this part in the second paragraph: 

People with smiling depression are often partnered or married, employed and are quite accomplished and educated. Their public, professional and social lives are not struggling. Their façade is put together and accomplished.

It’s common to see marriage, which is not inherently positive, lumped in with a list of attributes that are arguably inherently positive (employment, education, accomplished). I can think of several fiction and nonfiction books on my shelves that use similar groupings to describe people. My favorite was when an author described a woman accused by consipiracy theorists of masterminding an elder-killing scheme–the author said this was ridiculous, in part because the woman was “married with two children.” (I’m not saying the woman was an elder-killer; I’m saying I believe married people are just as capable of killing elders as I am.) Normally, when I encounter such matrimaniacal moments in my reading, I keep reading and just roll my eyes and make a huffing noise (even if I’m alone in the sauna–especially if I’m alone in the sauna). But when I encountered this NAMI article, I felt the need to stop and fume for a bit. 

Imagine a person with smiling depression reading this article. They would probably feel mostly validated. But there’s a risk that a single person with smiling depression could read paragraph two and think, “Oh golly, I’m educated but not married, so I’m less put-together than someone who is both educated and married. I guess I better get on the marry train.” Or a married person with smiling depression might think, “Oh golly, I’m not employed but at least I’m married so I better not leave this doofus because then I won’t be as put-together anymore.” They might think these things consciously, but my bet is they’re more likely to think them unconsciously, especially if they haven’t been actively working to deprogram years of social brainwashing. Either way, it’s not the best message to send to a person who is already struggling with mental health. Is it an actively dangerous message, as I intimated in the clickbaity title? I dunno. Perhaps maladaptive would be a better word. 

To make matters worse, on the list of positive attributes, marriage is the very first one. It’s right there in the reader’s face, WHAM. This reminds me of how descriptions of women in books and articles so very often start out with  “beautiful” or some variant. Notice this in your future readings, Copious Readers. The physical descriptor is almost always the very first one. “She was tall with thick auburn hair, liked disco, and had a PhD in molecular biology.” This habit reflects society’s underlying sexism, just as the quote in the NAMI article reflects society’s underlying singlism. 

So I’ll just simmer down a bit and say smiling depression is an underdiscussed topic. I commend NAMI for publishing this article, and I commend the author for writing it. But this is an excellent example of how singlism, insidious and subtle, sneaks into even the most well-meaning and progressive rhetoric.

–Christina 

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