The conversation of mental health has progressed vastly over the years. Only fairly recently have we started hearing people finally seriously talking about mental health and the people afflicted by it. Only recently have we seen an expansion of services and awareness for mental illness victims. Only recently has the proper education and information about these real diseases have been spreading around. And even with all this, we still have along way to go. One concept that has become included in the mental health conversation, is safe spaces — a term that has been receiving a lot of controversy and backlash lately because of politicians like Donald Trump and his war against the “PC Police”.
Safe spaces are still open for discussion, I think because they can be applied to so many different situations. However, the blatant generalizations of this concept is completely missing the point of what is the point of these things. By definition, in today’s age safe space is defined as,
“a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.”
In other words, it’s a toxic free zone. And to a lot of people, this translates into “sheltering people” and making them “weak” and not letting people experience the hardships of life. The important thing to remember when talking about safe spaces is that the concept can be manifested in different conditions and environments, i.e. racist groups on college campuses, transphobic comments on social media groups, the categories could go on and on. Each should be looked at by a case by case basis. After all, this is a new concept that people are now starting to take notice, but it should not be met with ignorance and rejection. For this article, I’m gonna talk about safe spaces for the situations involving mental illness and disabilities. Because when I hear about people bashing safe spaces without understanding how much they’re actually helping people, it makes me very sad and confused.
In the case of mental illness, it needs to be understood that mental illness has only recently become something that people are “suddenly” caring about, unfortunately. It has always been a problem, people have always dealt with different types of mental disabilities. Diseases of the brain such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc have always been around.
For people who are mentally ill, a safe space can be the only area outside of yes, the “real world” where they can feel calm and not triggered. The unfair thing with using the “real world” argument is, who really knows what is the real world and what isn’t? People who have depression or have experienced trauma deal with toxic things throughout the day.
Safe Spaces on The Internet
I recently heard someone on a virtual group say, “There is NO such thing as a safe space on the internet!!!” and this response was interesting to me. The person was bringing up an interesting point, because how are we supposed to talk about safe spaces in the widely developing online world and communities? A place where everything is so hard to track and censor? First off, I think it’s fair to say that the internet has become whole platform of life that may not necessarily be “real” but it feels way more real these days with developing technologies and social media, than it has back in the 90’s. So yeah, it’s true, it’s definitely harder to keep spaces safe and secure for people on the internet, but it certainly doesn’t make it impossible? We use the internet so much these days for conversations, movements and communities, why can’t we just adapt and evolve this new form of communication?
The outright rejection and misconception of safe spaces is — you guessed it — far from safe. It is a toxic mindset that uses the excuse that we need to “toughen up” and “stop complaining” when the truth is, this is all about making people stronger and healthier in their lives. I don’t believe that the safe space ideology is some kind of epidemic, it is an idea that is interpreted in different ways and will be taken to different extents. My problem is people not taking the time to understand the concept and how it can actually help people.
Debating vs. Healing
One thing that needs to be taken into consideration when talking about this is that sometimes healing is more important than “open debate”. I definitely agree that having controversial conversations and debating between different opinions can lead to progress. However, sometimes, in certain situations, it’s more important for the person to have the chance to recover.
It’s far from fair or healthy to tell people who use and need safe spaces are weak and not “tough enough” for real life. These spaces are not sheltering people, they’re giving them a life line. They’re helping them heal and become stronger in the long run. Too many people say that safe spaces are for people who are oversensitive and weak. But you know who a safe space is for? The people that have gone through the realest situations in human existence. It’s for the people who have gone through the deep, harrowing struggles of life, ranging from addiction, mental illness, sexual assault to oppression, discrimination and harassment. You don’t need to tell them that life is tough — they know.
The only reason people are backlashing against the concept of safe spaces is because we’ve been socialized into it. We’ve been raised to believe the idea that the only way to be strong and successful, is to suck things up, work restlessly and deal with hardships no matter what. However, it is this very mentality that has led to people becoming increasingly more stressed out, anxious because they are unable to reach their own tireless expectations. There is nothing wrong for people who have experienced trauma or extreme stress to have a place, an area, a safe environment to recharge their batteries before they are forced to deal with harsh realities of our society and our minds.
Safe spaces are not full proof by any means, but there is a delusion that it is causing more harm than good. There is nothing wrong with criticism, however there needs to be a good reason for the criticism. For example, if your reason against trigger warnings and safe spaces is because you want to be able to make your sexist comments or rape jokes in peace, your criticism is not going to be seen as valid. Our society’s ideas and mainstream ideologies are evolving every day. Maybe in the “good old days” the best way to learn things was just being tough and sucking it up, but things change and ideas change. Certain behavior isn’t as tolerated as it was 30, 10, or even 5 years ago. People are more sensitive and critical of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc, why is this seen as a bad thing?
Everyone experiences the “real world” differently. So why do we all judge them the same way? Everyone’s mind and concept of themselves is different. Ultimately, it’s time to stop arguing about who is “PC police” and who isn’t, and it’s time to stop arguing between who believes in safe spaces and who doesn’t, but we need to go back to talking to individuals and their specific experiences and see what they need. The idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings can be interpreted by many people in different ways, even by the people who may need it. Ultimately, it’s up to those people to decide, and they absolutely have a right to do so.
Roxanne Gay’s essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” explains all of this perfectly in her discussion about trigger warnings. She writes,
When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This is my failing.
But […] Trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists. Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need them, who need that safety.
Those of us who do not believe should have little say in the matter. We can neither presume nor judge what others might feel the need to be protected from.
It’s true, there will always be triggers and there always be danger in the world. It’s a part of life and that will remain a constant, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we deal with it. There is never any sure way to protect anyone completely, but does that mean we need to give up completely? There needs to be a larger element of empathy when people are criticizing things like safe spaces. They need to take into consideration who they are attacking, and what those people need.
Gay’s words are perfect because she is reflecting her own view on the subject both as a victim and as an observer, but she at the same time acknowledges that there are different people with different needs. For me, when I hear about the integrations of safe spaces, I think it’s a positive thing. I’ve never seen anything wrong with making a space that is exclusive and specially created for an individual’s needs. If anything, it’s bringing more awareness to mental health and traumatic experiences and how they shape people’s lives. It is a sign that our communities, both online and off are taking these issues more seriously. It means that people’s trauma is being acknowledged, and that there are people who want to help them heal.
All I ask is this. Let’s not speak for others. Whether it is pushing safe spaces too much, or bashing them too much, we must listen to the individuals who have experienced trauma and see what is best for them. A middle ground needs to be found; there needs to be a better conversation about it, instead of people attacking each other with wide generalizations of what safes spaces mean to them. Safety is an important part of the human experience, we all crave it and we all want to find our own version of it. So let’s keep looking, keep talking and keep taking care of each other.
This is an installment for our Mental Health Awareness Month series.