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Why ‘Forced Positivity’ Is Problematic for Mental Health and Chronic Illness

A 14-year-old girl lives with severe chronic illnesses which leave her isolated and homebound. She travels states away to hopefully learn new coping skills that will allow her to be out in the world she so desperately wants to explore. Positive thinking was the main method taught to the teens during this weekend.

“If you don’t think, talk or ask about illness, then your brain will not acknowledge the pain.”

We were told not to talk about how we were feeling, and parents were told not to ask. Months after this program, my depression worsened, and suicidal thoughts began to creep their way in.

Years later, I joined Instagram with a page dedicated to my chronic illness with the intent on advocating for myself and others. I soon noticed a toxic trait that plagues my community, taught to me years before: forced positivity.

Forced positivity is the idea that people dealing with an illness need to constantly portray themselves in a positive mood or light, and that thinking “on the bright side” will help with pain. This is extremely common on social media where people are expected to only show the good side of their lives.

This idea — never allowing people in on letting people know how our bodies feel — becomes problematic in more ways than one. It warps the view of disabled people for society, it contributes to the worsening of mental health for the disabled, and it creates a toxic environment on social media.

You cannot truly create an accessible space without seeing and understanding the problems someone with a disability goes through. By teaching people not to express these problems, it continues to make it hard for people with disabilities to participate in life.

Advocating online becomes difficult when people within the community attack each other over being open and honest. “Illness fakers” and “munchies” are terms often used to describe someone who fakes an illness for attention, but are they truly faking, or are they simply going against the norm and posting the highs and lows of chronic illness?

Cyberbullying is common, and teaching people that bottling up illness-related problems to lessen the pain often leads to worsening of mental illness or even suicide attempts. Physical illness and mental illness go hand-in-hand; it is almost expected to have both. Teachings like these are dangerous, even life-threatening.

Breaking this taboo around toxic forced positivity is something I owe to my 14-year-old self and everyone else who went through a similar program. It is for the safety of my friends who have been dealt an unfair hand, and for the forward progress of an accessible society.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash