There are all sorts of narratives about women, love and happiness, and we see them from our earliest days. A popular example is that love will fix you in the broken places or save you from the darkest days of your life (thanks, Disney). Thankfully, this myth is losing ground, and our public narratives increasingly contain strong and empowered individuals who learn to save themselves.
This is all good news. But another narrative has emerged in recent years, surrounding love and mental health—and it’s quite a worrying one.
It’s a narrative about loving the mentally ill girl. I see it in TV and film. The mentally ill girl is almost a trope, and there’s a certain dark glamour in loving this girl (providing she’s skinny and tousle-haired—I’m looking at you, Skins). This girl is dark and fragile and sexy. A glittering star in a dark sky. She’s a project and a fantasy and she needs a good man to straighten her out, all at the same time.
I also see it in written articles from time to time, suggesting people with anxiety are the best ones to fall in love with. ‘Why loving a girl with anxiety will be the best thing you’ll do’, and so on. Because girls with anxiety are sensitive and empathetic and won’t ever walk out on you. Right.
I can’t help but worry when I see these titles like this. For one thing, it diminishes women’s experience of mental health issues, turning them into a sort of stock character. For another, this strikes me as a disturbing and dangerous attitude to love. I think it comes from a good place – a place of letting people with mental illnesses know that they are valid and worthy of love. But when I was in the grips of major depression and chronic anxiety, I was not a good person to love. By turns weepy and distant, I was never more selfish or less easy to be around than when in the grips of my illness.
This didn’t make me unworthy of love, but it certainly wasn’t a way of being that anyone should idolise. When I was very ill, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to look after myself—let alone be a good partner to somebody else. Worse yet, a certain type of person is drawn to this—someone who wants to ‘fix you’ and take the credit for it, and then have you be indebted.
This blog revolves around the fact I think there should be no shame in being mentally ill, so let me make it plain: I am not saying mentally ill people shouldn’t be loved, because of course they should. But I will stand up and argue that it isn’t helpful to suggest ‘loving the mentally ill girl’ is the best thing you can do. Not all anxious or depressed people become compassionate, loving, empathetic and loyal. Many compassionate, loving, empathetic and loyal people have never been mentally ill.
This attitude reduces women. It glamorous a horrendous experience. Worse still, it’s potentially dangerous for women. And that’s not okay.