It was not always clear to Ayushi Shroff, a 3rd-year Human Biology and Society Major, that she was a feminist. When she first heard the term, the connotations led her to believe it was a negative term that identified “men haters.” Since it was a topic not commonly discussed with her peers or in school in Singapore, she never reevaluated this initial assumption. It was not until coming to the U.S. for college that her misconception was challenged. She was chatting with a group of other new students and trying to make some friends when the conversation moved to politics. When someone asked the group if they were feminists, she was quick to jump in and say “No, I don’t hate men.” They all turned to her in shock. She recalled feelings of confusion and embarrassment; it had never crossed her mind that her understanding was different from others or that it was wrong altogether. The group then educated her on what feminism meant to them and her preconceived notion began to collapse. She remembers this moment not only with embarrassment, but also with gratitude. Since that day, she has been motivated to research the movement and to talk to people about feminism in order to break down misconceptions like the ones she held.
For Ayushi, what drew her to feminism was the movement’s strong emphasis and founding principle of equality. During her time in the U.S., she has had to face inequality head on, which has caused her to realize that “being an international student has its challenges, [and] being a woman has its challenges.” The idea of equality is something that she has become incredibly passionate about not only in the context of feminism, but also mental health. As co-director of Active Minds, a mental health club on campus, Ayushi is always eager to advocate for mental health. The intersection between mental health and feminism is not obvious, as mental health hasn’t often been depicted as a feminist issue. However, Ayushi was eager to talk about how it could be. It was important for her to start by explaining that mental health issues affect people differently, and that it is not something that is accepted or talked about in all cultures. She shared her experience, saying that at home there was community stigma and minimal awareness in school.
Historically, many examples make an argument for the linkage between feminism and mental health. One of these is the way that women’s experiences and mental health continue to be pathologized. Harmful terms such as ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ have been used for many years to discredit women’s emotions and experiences. The historically gendered diagnosis of hysteria often served to invalidate women and others who were just undergoing typical life experiences. Ayushi further explained how women were being diagnosed with hysteria for experiencing sexual arousal. This comes back to language, which Ayushi says is incredibly important when talking about mental health. Today, damaging phrases and terms such as these have been normalized in modern language and are often used offhandedly. Ayushi emphasized that these words can be damaging and can close the door for honest discussions of mental health. Using mental health terminology incorrectly, she said, perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes about mental illnesses and further trivializes the experiences of those with mental health conditions. Therefore, for her, an important part of advocacy is breaking down these stigmas and working to educate people about the power their words hold.
The role of feminism in mental health issues is to identify the damage that constructed gender roles have on one’s gender identity and mental wellbeing. Mental health, much like feminism, is highly stigmatized and receives negative pushback. But people like Ayushi have aspirations of bringing mental health language and education into the conversation of feminism, allowing for the destigmatization of mental health.