Guest Post: Michelle Falter on Mental Illness & the Stigma of Difference

The Stigma of Difference: Empathy, Understanding, Dignity, and Justice for People with Mental Illness

Every day I wake up, I have a conversation with myself about whether or not to get out of bed. For most people, I would argue this conversation is more to do with needing a few more minutes of sleep. For me, while that might be the case sometimes, this internal conversation is a struggle to cope with life and stress. This feeling of struggle stems from a chemical imbalance that is truly out of my control. And, although I am hesitant to “out” myself as an academic and educator who suffers from mild to moderate depression due to the stigmas still related to this field, I think it is important that I do so. In fact, I think that part of the reason that mental illness is so stigmatized is that people are not brave enough to talk about these issues in public forums. Discussion about depression and other mental illness is considered awkward, uncomfortable, and people mostly just don’t get it. And things that make us uncomfortable are things that we tend to censor or ignore. For me, I consider talking about mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, etc. an issue of social justice.

Although social justice is an often bandied term that means different things to different people, I like to think of social justice as a concept regarding the creation of a society that is based on principles of equality and solidarity. This society not only understands the values of human rights but also recognizes the dignity of every human being. In addition, for me, social justice also carries with it the need for action, when one encounters injustice.

As I watched the news and listened to the details of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African American individuals at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, North Carolina, and the voices of people on social media, I felt an instant ache at the events that were unfolding and just how far we have NOT come on issues of race in America. But, I would also argue that we have not come very far on understanding mental illness in the United States, either. Many people were quick to call Dylann Roof mentally ill.

However, to equate mass murder and racist actions to mental illness is not only inaccurate but it also is deeply hurtful to people who deal with mental illness on a daily basis. Of course, some acts of violence can be equated with mental illness, but it is not the majority. I wholeheartedly concur with Arthur Chu in his recent Salon article on equating mass murder sprees to mental illness; he wrote: “mentally ill are far more likely to be the targets of violence than the perpetrators.” And this can be corroborated by a study in 2001 that looked at 34 adolescent mass murderers. Out of that group, slightly less than 1 in 4 of those studied had a documented psychiatric history–meaning that the vast majority did not, and causality of murder to mental illness couldn’t be directly linked in the cases that did.

What is important to think about as an educator is how mental illness is constructed in our society as a stigma, a modern day Scarlet Letter, for those who deal with the effects of mental illness. In fact, approximately 1 in 4 American adults and 1 in 5 American youth suffer from a mental disorder. As a former middle and high school teacher, I think the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death in students age 10-24 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is terrifying and needs to be addressed. Mental illness is widely considered to be the most stigmatized human condition in the world, and when we create these socially constructed stigmas, we push people to the margins of our society. People fear what they don’t know and the stigma of mental illness exacerbates the misconceptions people have about who the person really is. Those who are labeled with a mental illness face oppression.

In 1990, Iris Marion Young, a professor of political science and gender studies, wrote about the five faces of oppression, believing that the presence of even one of these types was adequate to consider a social group oppressed. These five faces include:

  • Exploitation: using people’s labors to produce profit while not compensating them fairly, therefore creating a system that perpetuates class differences.
  • Marginalization: relegating or confining a group of people to a lower social standing or outer limit or edge of society; a process of exclusion.
  • Powerlessness: inhibiting a group of people’s development of one’s capacities, taking away decision making power, and exposing a group of people to disrespectful treatment because of lowered status, determined by the ruling class.
  • Cultural imperialism: taking the culture of the ruling class and establishing it as the norm.
  • Violence: subjecting members of a group to fear of random, unprovoked attacks on their persons or property.

Based on these distinctions, I think we can make a very clear claim that people with mental illnesses are oppressed due to at least three, and maybe all of these faces of oppression. Clearly, as already indicated by the stigma, people with mental illness are marginalized. Those with mental illness can be fired from jobs and denied health services. They are targets of violence in the form of physical and verbal attacks and ridicule. People with mental illness are constructed as not “normal”–instead they are “other-ed” through stereotypes–images of mentally ill as violent, unreliable, or incompetent. As Young argues, “the culturally dominated undergo a paradoxical oppression, in that they are both marked out by stereotypes and at the same time rendered invisible…The stereotypes so permeate the society that they are not noticed as contestable” (p. 59).

As noted, people are uncomfortable talking about mental illness and therefore it is often just not even talked about, rendering it truly invisible, yet everywhere. Two high school students recently tried to talk about depression in their high schools only to be censored by their principal.

In addition, because people’s notions of the mentally ill are so ingrained, often those with mental illness have internalized the stereotypical notions, which in many cases leads to feelings of shame and lowered self-worth. As someone who suffers from depression, sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the pressure to prove I am not “crazy,” unstable, or incompetent. I also think it is very important to note that mental illness is one of very few illnesses that people are encouraged in some ways to hide. Those diagnosed with cancer or diabetes are not discouraged from speaking about their illnesses. Yet, mental illness is often considered a family secret; something not to discuss with respectable company. But, we need to stop considering mental illness a weakness. It is a disorder, a flaw of biology and chemistry, not a flaw of a person’s character or ability.

So what should be done in order to be more socially just educators? First of all, start talking about mental illness. Unpack the stereotypes with other teachers and, of course, students. Discussing facts about mental illness is a good first step of reducing the shame that many youth feel. I personally recommend the Peabody award-winning documentary “Hearts and Minds: Teens and Mental Illness” which demystifies mental illness for teens through the stories of four teenagers.

A second recommendation is simply having empathy, not sympathy for people with mental illness. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have been told to perk up or just cheer up. Hmm … if only I had thought of that! While friends and family are well-intentioned with statements like this, it can come across as belittling and irreverent. Mental illness is not something that someone can snap out of. Instead, offer your listening services and moral support through daily or weekly check-ins.

Third and finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t advocate the use of literature to talk about mental illness. As a middle and high school English teacher, there are many wonderful books that could open up conversations about people with mental illnesses. I will offer a few of my suggestions, but there are many more great ones.

Depression and Suicide:

  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour

Anxiety Disorders:

  • I Don’t Want to be Crazy by Samantha Schutz
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Eating Disorders:

  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle

Bipolar Disorder:

  • Crazy by Amy Reed
  • Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

Thought Disorders (e.g. Schizophrenia) :

  • Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral
  • Cameron and the Girls by Edward Averett


  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Something Like Normal by Trish Doller


  • Cut by Patricia McCormick
  • Scars by Cheryl Rainfield


Young I. M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Michelle M. Falter is a doctoral candidate in the department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia, and former editor of the Journal of Language and Literacy Education. She has been a secondary English teacher for ten years, having the privilege of teaching in both the United States and abroad in countries such as The Dominican Republic and Germany. Michelle’s scholarship focuses on the role of emotion in the English classroom, and helping educators co-construct knowledge with their students using participatory, critical, and dialogical teaching practices. Michelle can be contacted at or on twitter @MFalterPhD.

Guest Post: Oksana Lushchevska on International Children’s Literature

Following One’s Own Beliefs: The Story of a Ukrainian-English Bilingual Picturebook

by Oksana Lushchevska, the University of Georgia

As a reading child, growing up in both former Soviet Ukraine and independent Ukraine, I was kindled by children’s books that told stories from other countries. I read about many interesting places, and was open and excited to visit countries not only to see and learn about places and people, but also to share something from or about my country.

When I came to the U. S. for the first time, I brought souvenirs from Ukraine in order to represent a multifaceted culture of my country. I have been living in this country for about ten years now, and I am still bringing some souvenirs to and from Ukraine while going back and forth between here and there. However, these souvenirs have now turned into books—mostly children’s books to be exact.

As an adult PhD student, I grew even more interested in international books, but became puzzled when I found out that my country was represented only by Jan Brett’s interpretation of a Ukrainian folktale, The Mitten. I was surprised that many other countries are also underrepresented through a children’s literature perspective. While my academic focus is the inclusion of international children’s literature into U. S. classrooms, I also care about the representation of Ukrainian children’s literature in the U. S. But the question is: how can I bring it to U. S. readers?

The stepping stones that I envision to follow my beliefs include reviewing international books for children in both English and Ukrainian, translating children’s literature from Ukraine, writing about it for both IBBY and USBBY organizations, and finally trying to launch a joint project with a small private publishing house, Bratske Publishers, located in Ukraine. I am also sending samples of Ukrainian children’s books in translation to publishers in the U. S. Canada, New Zealand, and Great Britain.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 12.44.36 PMSince I came from Ukraine just a few months ago and brought a number of copies of a bilingual picturebook Скільки?/How many? by Halyna Kyrpa and Olha Havrylova, published by Bratske Publishers, I want to share its story, since the creation of a book always has a story behind its physical artifact.

The first motivation for this project was a graduate course, International Children’s Literature, taught by my academic adviser, Dr. Jennifer M. Graff. The second one was the question asked by my doctoral colleagues: what can we do to bring to young readers the books from the countries that are not widely represented or underrepresented in the U. S.?

The third, and by far the most important one, involves the turmoil and tragic events that are currently happening in my country. A year ago, Ukraine became a country in which huge strives for social justice and societal, cultural, and economic stability were vitally pulsing. In addition, Russia started the war in Ukraine soon after the Revolution of Dignity took place. At this time, we, the students of international children’s literature course, read Jella Lepman’s (1891-1970) book, Bridge of Children’s Books: The Inspiring Autobiography of a Remarkable Woman.

Oksana and others read Скільки?/How many?

Oksana and others read Скільки?/How many?

Lepman was the founder of the International Youth Library in Munich in 1949, and she strongly believed that children’s books are a key to “peaceful coexistence…all over the globe,” and children’s books might help us to raise renewed generations in the world by globally showing and emphasizing the best examples of humanity through the art of children’s books. Books can expand the understanding of global connections and evoke an interest to learn about each other in compassionate ways in order to become global citizens.

Put in Lepman’s words, children’s literature “affords a wide view of differences and similarities in the children’s literature of various nations, it also vividly shows the mutual influence they depend on” (p. 54). With this idea in mind, I considered ways of representing Ukrainian children’s literature beyond the borders of Ukraine. At the same time, I strived to bring another story of my country: the one that shows that despite the war and turmoil, the Ukrainian desire for change has a huge cultural impact. Yet, the news coverage, as we know, often represents only a tiny fraction of the things happening in a cultural and social life of a country. Thus, the creation of this bilingual picturebook was another story, a story with its own voice.

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An initial step of the creation of this picturebook was to formulate an idea and its format. I found out that Kickstarter provides a fairly simple, yet specialized enough platform to start such a project. My friend, Ian Boucher, helped me with the video, and my colleague, Stephanie Maria Short, helped me with editing the text of the promotion page.

My Ukrainian colleagues and friends, Yuliya Berezenko, a gifted editor and a founder of Bratske Publishers, and Valentyna Vzdulska, an unparalleled editor and children’s book writer, supported me with translation of the information and distribution of it among potential supporters. It was difficult to believe that we would reach a needed sum of money to start the project, but my colleagues, professors, and the members of Ukrainian communities both in Ukraine and in the U. S. supported this project with great enthusiasm. I am deeply thankful for their tremendous encouragement and support. They made the project possible.

When we saw that we were about to reach our goal, I started to work on the translation of the text. I have to admit that it was not an easy task to find a right text. We wanted to publish something that would represent an experienced voice on an author, provide fruitful elements for an illustrator, and finally serve as both globally and culturally-conscious literature.

We finally settled on a poem, Скільки?/How many?, written by a distinguished Ukrainian writer and translator, Halyna Kyrpa. I co-translated this poem with Professor Michael Naydan from the Pennsylvania State University. The text of this poem raises many philosophical questions, and might stimulate deep critical thinking. Here is an excerpt:

“Скільки у сонця промінчиків? / How many rays does the sun have?

А скільки хмарок у небі? / And how many clouds are in the sky?

А скільки піщинок на березі річки? / How many grains of sand are there on a riverbank?

А скільки хвиль у Дніпра? / And how many waves are in the Dnipro River?”

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The artist, Olha Havrylova, started to illustrate Скільки?/How Many? right after the translation was done and approved. It took approximately four months of daily work to finish the illustrations. During the process, we checked and discussed each illustration, commented on colors, and tried to document each important step on Kickstarter. It was a challenging and interesting process that might only be learned through experience.

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When the book was sent to the printing house, another situation emerged. The picturebook came out with some unexpected surprise: the colors turned out to be much darker than we anticipated. We needed to place an order again, to check each book and revisit our expectations.

Another story is a promotional campaign. First, the book was presented at the Lviv Book Forum, the largest literary forum in Ukraine, and finally found its way to the readers. While in Ukraine, I visited about four reading events, and upon my return to the U. S., I also had a chance to read the book to kids in one of the local schools and as a guest visitor at Avid, Athens, Georgia’s local bookstore.

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Oksana reads Скільки?/How many? with children and their families in Ukraine.

Based on my observations, children and adults responded to the book with great interest. They enjoyed listening to the poem, counting the objects in the illustrations. They picked up new words and phrases easily, and were ready to talk about the philosophical questions raised in the picturebook. They also participated in an interactive game, which I called “A Translator.” They tasted foreign words and repeated them with excitement.

In a nutshell, I am proud to inform our readers that due to the efforts of many children’s literature enthusiasts and supporters, the picturebook, Скільки?/How many? is now available in Avid Bookshop, Homeplace Gifts, and on Amazon in both picturebook and e-book formats.

While looking back at the path we took, I believe it showed me how to answer the question that was simmering in our classroom that day: what can we do to bring to young readers the books from countries not widely represented—or underrepresented—in the U. S.?

I think that we can show initiative, share our beliefs, and use all the possibilities that digital media provides to us. We can also devote our personal time to the ideas that fill us, and to the questions that don’t necessarily evoke right and straightforward answers. We need to experience and learn from that experience. We need to believe that we can do more than we think, and if even sometimes it sounds emotional, it still worth trying.

Now, as the picturebook How many?/ Скільки? has been out for several months, and we have already started to work on our second bilingual picturebook, I think that there are so many steps behind us and so many steps ahead.

I strive to introduce bilingual picturebooks to publishing houses that are interested in international titles for children because I believe that Ukrainian-English picturebooks might bring about many possibilities and provide advantages to learn from and about Ukrainian children’s literature in order to familiarize readers with the Ukrainian language, and to use this literature in worldwide educational academic and school settings. Additionally, such bilingual picturebooks will expand literary responses and discussions, as well as could help to develop and strengthen students’ identities, histories, and imaginations that are at the core of literacy practices.

I have hope that the bilingual picturebooks that we are working on will find their way to children’s literature enthusiasts, and will lead us to see more examples of children’s literature from Ukraine, as well as many countries that still need wider and deeper multifaceted representations for classroom reading and discussions, and for a great reading enjoyment.


Lepman, J. (2002). A bridge of children’s books: The inspiring autobiography of a remarkable woman. Dublin, Ireland: The O’Brien Press, Ltd.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 12.55.43 PMOksana Lushchevska completed a Master’s degree in Russian and Comparative Literature, and a Graduate Certificate in Children’s Literature from the Pennsylvania State University. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, studying children’s literature. She is an author and translator of children’s books written in Ukrainian.

Guest Post — Critical Theory: The Multiple Dimensions of Social Justice

Critical Theory: The Multiple Dimensions of Social Justice

by Maha Bali

I came across Feminist Frequency and the great work of Anita Sarkeesian by coincidence when I found out about #gamergate, given my interest in educational games. Since then, I have been addicted to her work.

But, this post is not about her or about #gamergate, not really. It is about the multiple sides of social justice. We as critical pedagogues, and even educators who do not necessarily label ourselves as such, often refer to social justice—that we advocate for it, that we would like our students to fight for it—as if social justice were black and white. We know it is not. We just sometimes fall into a trap of talking about it as if it was non-controversial.

Let’s take Anita’s videos on LEGO. I agree completely with her assessment of the gender stereotypes in LEGO games and ads. However, I have noticed a few other things not included in the video.

Those games with ancient Egyptian themes—where they blow up things—they are blowing up my national heritage as an Egyptian! Can you even begin to imagine how that feels? What kind of messages are people portraying when they teach kids in school about ancient Egypt, and then play games where they destroy those monuments? And besides, my postcolonial self would like to remind Westerners that they often have stolen and destroyed our “stuff,” as simulated in these games.

Granted, Anita is against violence in boys’ games in general, and I know she would understand my specific complaint as an Egyptian, maybe even say it someday. But she wouldn’t feel it how I am feeling it now.

Additionally, I noticed almost all the people in the LEGO ads are White (I actually don’t remember any non-Whites, but I might have missed something). LEGO’s “Friends” theme for girls has a token Black girl and a token Latina. I’m not seeing girls like that in the ads. I am seeing just one of each in the midst of many White girls. And by the way, where is the token Muslim girl with a headscarf?

You see where I am going with this discussion, right? Critical theorists approach things with lenses, and our lenses are always incomplete. As an Egyptian, Muslim, headscarf-wearing woman, I see the world in a different way; I see injustice upon women, postcolonials, etc. more clearly from my personal experiences than I see injustice against, say, homosexuals or African Americans. I can try to understand it from their perspective, extrapolating from my own experiences of oppression, but it is not the same. I have never experienced poverty, and without firsthand grassroots experiences, I would have been ignorant of the extent of it in my own country. And yet I have not lived it; I cannot speak for them.

I once posted the hashtag #ineeddiversegames. I said I needed diverse games so I could find characters that represent me. Someone responded with a list of games centered around Muslim females. How does he know I meant me, as a Muslim woman, rather than me as a university professor? Or me as a mom? Oh, right. He looked at my twitter photo, and did not read my profile.

But, it was a fair guess. I actually partially meant it as he took it. I do feel uncomfortable with lack of avatars who cover their hair. Playing a Muslim-designed game does not solve this issue. However, regularly having such avatars in all games would—but I don’t think he got it.

I am reminded of a South Park episode about racism where Token (the implied “funny” name for the token black kid) tells Stan he just “doesn’t get it.” Near the end of the episode, Stan said, “Now I get it. I just don’t get it,” to which Token responds, “Now you get it, Stan.”

So here are two important situations where I just don’t get it. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict looks to me, as an Arab Muslim, to be a clear case of oppression of the Palestinian people. But, I am sure there is a moral ground upon which Israelis justify their existence. Not being one of them, I cannot possibly understand the Holocaust or other oppressions Jews have historically suffered. Knowing about them does not help me understand why the Palestinian people are suffering because of them.

I don’t know enough about the history and politics of this conflict, but I sense it is not a matter of knowledge, but of perspective. That justice there might be more complex than I can imagine. I get that the Israeli need to protect their citizens and allow them to live in peace. However, I don’t get how killing tens or hundreds of Palestinians for each one or two Israelis is going to help achieve that goal.

Another issue even closer to home is the ousting of Egyptian president Morsi in 2013. I get why many Egyptians wanted him out. But I also get that the way it has been done has created more instability and violence. What I don’t get is why people supporting either side can’t see the oppression and injustice that has occurred to the other.

In my two examples above, I am talking about individual citizens, not governments. Governments have different calculations, which I doubt have social justice factored into them. But I tend to assume that citizens strive towards social justice. And yet we have a long way to go, especially if we keep talking about social justice as if the goal was clear, and all the difficulty was in the battle.

Maha Bali is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at American University in Cairo, Egypt (AUC). She teaches and researches a variety of things related to education and ed tech. She runs a blog:; Twitter: @bali_maha), and is co-facilitator of

This post was inspired by:

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.