Unpacking Privilege

The Unpacking Privilege Series is a Law Weekly feature that will periodically publish the speeches from the Unpacking Privilege Diversity Week event.

Emily Reeder '17
Guest Columnist

I have struggled with mental illness for most of my life, but was not given a label until I was nine: PTSD and depression. I did not receive effective treatment until my early 20s. The interim decade can only be described as a roller coaster.  I was haunted by thoughts of suicide and, in my late teens, went down a path that can only be described as a steady, downward mission of self-destruction. It’s now been several years since my illness has substantially impacted my life, but the fact of its existence is always in the back of my mind. 

My story is simultaneously diverse from many of my classmates and one of tremendous privilege. As an upper-class white woman, I am keenly aware of how my privilege shaped my experience with mental illness. My privilege provided me access to the opportunity to heal, and my privilege affords me the chance to stay healthy. Even with great health insurance that most people in this country cannot afford, the treatments that saved my life were extremely expensive, and, years later, I need access to medication that is far from cheap. I am rare–and lucky–to have an incredible support system that both financially and emotionally supports me.  I know beyond a doubt that there is no way that I would be at UVa Law, much less succeeding here, without the continued access to medical care that my privilege provides me. To be honest, I’m not even sure I would still be alive. 

The “diversity” of my experience is a fundamental driver in how I perceive others, particularly in terms of my duty as a person of privilege to others that struggle with mental illness. Every time I see a homeless person on the street, I am reminded that conservative estimates put the rate of mental illness among this population at 25 percent. These heartbreaking numbers don’t capture the millions of people trapped in poverty who cannot afford the medical care they desperately need to function. The crisis of mental illness goes beyond affording care–there are people in our own community that are too afraid or ashamed to seek the help that would enable them to unlock their true potential. 

As someone that has “overcome” my past, I don’t even see whether to share my experiences with others as a choice: I MUST use my position of privilege.  Lack of access to treatment and stigmatization of mental illness are two of the greatest problems facing the United States. We cannot even begin to have equality until we face this problem head on. Mental illness is tightly wound with so many issues: generational poverty, drug addiction, crime, and unemployment. Even when recognized, mental illness is only viewed as a legitimate disability among certain populations, often along racial, gender, sexuality, or economic lines. 

Although progress has been made, the dominant narrative of the mentally ill is that we are somehow shameful or dangerous. I don’t think I’m shameful or dangerous: the struggle with my illness is a diversity of experience that has made me driven, passionate, empathetic, and brave. Far from holding me back in law school, I believe my background is one of the reasons I have done so well. It’s on me to make sure that I can lift others up to do the same. It’s on all of us to build a society that makes stories like mine more common.