Tara Willoughby, Canberra, Australia, SSH Blog Correspondent
Like street harassment, mental illness is a subject that does not get enough serious discussion. In 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimated that almost half of all Australians would experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 Australians will experience mental illness in any 12 month period. And yet there’s still a huge level of stigma around talking about mental illness in our community – three quarters of Australians with mental illnesses reported experiencing stigma.
Also like street harassment, mental illness often has disproportionately difficult effects on more marginalised members of our community like LGBTIQ people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, among others. As a queer woman who has struggled with mental illness, I am quite familiar with some of the ways that street harassment fits into the larger puzzle of prejudice, violence and mental ill-health in our communities.
There are two areas of intersection between street harassment and mental health that I’d like to talk about here: the effects that street harassment can have on people dealing with mental illness, and the possibility that street harassment could contribute to people developing mental health problems in the first place (spoiler alert: it does).
Effects of Street Harassment on People with Mental Illness
We often talk about the way that street harassment makes public spaces unsafe and unwelcoming, especially for women. The way that harassment impacts on mental illness is a key way that this takes place.
In Australia, women experience higher rates of mental illness in a given 12 month period, and in particular they experience much higher rates of anxiety disorders. Street harassment can play into the narratives and fears that run around in our heads. It can keep us cooped up on our houses, debating whether to go out and do the things that would otherwise be good for us (exercising, seeing friends and maintaining social connections, being in nature) and risk having our whole day or week crushed by a stranger, or stay inside where at least we know the people who demand we smile.
Street Harassment as a Cause of Mental Illness?
Street harassment is part of the larger spectrum of violence that’s present in our society. It sits in the same group as other more acknowledged violence against women, with homophobic and transphobic violence, with racist violence. We know that violence against women is more damaging to the health of Victorian (Australian) women aged 15–44 years than any other well-known risk factors. And when we look at that health damage, the majority of it manifests as mental ill-health.
Many people have written about the impacts that street harassment has on them, and the way that it has affected their own mental health, through to the development of PTSD symptoms or other negative mental health outcomes.
The Moral Responsibility to Consider Mental Illness
The world over, it is not surprising for a street harasser to change in a second from giving so-called ‘compliments’ to declaring their targeted woman a ‘crazy b*tch’. People who look to deny our experiences also occasionally find it convenient to question our mental health – to suggest that ‘only a crazy person would find a simple hello to be harassment.’
My response to all of these suggestions and allegations and shouts is: so what?
So what if your behaviour would only hurt someone who is experiencing mental illness? So what if I’m crazy? I’m also hurt. There are a whole bunch of people in Australia who are dealing with mental illness at any one time. And it is entirely well publicised that street harassment behaviours hurt people with mental illness. So if you choose to engage in street harassment, you choose to risk exposing someone with mental illness to increased harm.
I find this discussion reminiscent of the massive arguments that are periodically had online about trigger warnings. People often say that we just don’t know what may trigger someone – should we give trigger warnings for the sound of rustling papers and the smell of peanut butter? But on the other side of the coin, there are a whole bunch of things that we write about that we know can often negatively affect people. And we know that, because the people who are affected keep telling us.
We need to listen to the voices of the people who are hurt by street harassment on a daily basis. If we don’t listen, then the hurt is on us.
Tara works with AWAVA (the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance) indulging her love of social media. You can find her on Twitter as @angelbird72 or @Tash_Because or being silly as one half of the ‘slice-of-life’ podcast Heaps Funny But.
Share on Facebook