A Litany for Survival

It is of utmost importance that I bring to your attention African-American poet Audre Lorde’s statement on adolescent mental health, through the portrayal of societal ignorance and silencing of this alarming issue. Her renowned poem, A Litany for Survival alongside other contemporary references will be analysed, enabling the exploration of this youth issue. Ultimately, this poem concludes with the sombre understanding that society has created an environment where the survival of youth is not likely, so consequently Lorde demands that we stand up and let our struggles be vocalised for the better of our futures.

A Litany for Survival details the complicatedness attached to adolescent years and the blatant disregard of society towards the hardships and reality of our whirling state of mind affecting youth experiences today. Lorde describes the tumultuous moments surrounding adolescent’s navigation of mental illnesses through commentary upon society’s callous responses. Our obliviousness was epitomised in the confusion of situational sadness with the medical condition of depression as the hashtag #Igetdepressedwhen… “I don’t get Bieber tickets” and “1D goes on a break” offensively started to trend on Twitter. It’s quite impossible to dismiss Lorde’s call to break the silence that proves to be at the forefront of adolescent mental health. As Glenn Close – perhaps more easily identified as ‘the villain from 101 Dalmatians’ relates, “it is an odd paradox that a society, which can now speak openly and unabashedly about topics that were once unspeakable, still remains largely silent when it comes to mental illness.” Lorde’s poem accurately depicts the frustrations of adolescent’s living with a mental illness in a society where insensitivity is shamefully chosen. As the poet herself suggests we – the young people of 2016, need to speak up and bring more awareness to this youth issue.

Lorde’s use of metaphors throughout the poem “for those of us who live at the shoreline standing upon the constant edges of decision”, exemplifies the sense of jeopardy and aloneness felt by youth living in mental unrest which is so often hushed by our peers and families, “you’ll be fine” as they so often say; that finally it does become just that – ‘fine’ and mental illness becomes something that is normal, unchangeable and accept it as part of who we are, “imprinted with fear like a faint line in the center of our forehead learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk.” Society’s depiction of the years of youth as being the ‘golden ages’ and support without judgement being plentiful, “illusion of some safety to be found,” is a falsehood and realised with the obvious carelessness and stigmatisation of mental health that surrounds us on the daily, “the heavy-footed hoped to silence us” leading to the silent struggle of actuality that youth face to ‘get out alive’. The extensive use of the personal pronouns “us” and “we” serves to create an inclusive tone as well as highlight the enormity of this issue. This is most prominently used in the promotion of the underlying message of this poem which encourages youth to express their struggle knowing that society has skewed knowledge on the ‘ease of survival’, “so it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.”

The poem’s title itself “A Litany for Survival” is a denotation of a communal prayer, and alike most prayers are offered, the speaker recognises their own insignificance and misgivings in relation to a power greater to themselves, establishing the influence that we as friends, siblings, cousins and even mere Facebook buddies or Snapchat story viewers have on the lives of youth going through a mental illness, with the concluding stanza offering the solution for we – either as those suffering or those that are ignorant to speak up. “In this poem we see shunned groups emerging from their silence and simultaneously empowering and restoring themselves with their new understanding.” We too must use our voices for the sake of our futures; to get out alive.

According to Beyond Blue Australia one in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition, although only 20% are willing to pursue help with the most common reasoning being ‘it’s not an actual issue.’ Epidemiologists have estimated that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing only ischemic heart disease. This is #notokay. The stigmatisation that we as a society have created around mental health is appalling and in fact, as demonstrated by Lorde –  stands in the way of youth asking for help and has created an environment in which the reality finds the teenage years to be a struggle to get out of alive and A-OK. Hans Pols, an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney recently commented on the ABC’s controversial Q&A segment titled ‘Mental As: Is mental illness a real disease?’ “The stigma associated with mental illness stops people from seeking help, and casting doubts on the nature of mental illness doesn’t help the situation either.” Eminem’s Academy Award winning song, ‘Lose Yourself’ encapsulates the emotions felt by someone who is experiencing mental illness, on the backdrop of societal reaction. There seems to be the expectation that youth are going through the best time of their lives, but the truth is far from what is promised, “snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity.” As reiterated by Dr. Pols, together we need to take the focus away from the shame and ignorance associated with adolescent mental health, and stop questioning “what is mental illness”, instead showing support and asking “what can we do to help.”

The silencing of mental illnesses in adolescents is a dangerous youth issue indeed and it is imperative that we change our mindsets on how we view and treat it #asap. We cannot afford to continue as is with our youth feeling any less of a person because we in 2016 can’t seem to comprehend the seriousness of this issue. Lorde’s ‘Litany for Survival’, urges us to speak suggesting that in current society’s environment survival of youth is unlikely, but with changes to how we deal with our responses to mental health can start the steps towards making our teen times not only survivable but enjoyable as well.


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