In hopes of breaking the stigma around mental illnesses, Michelle Yang wrote a powerful piece on how preconceptions on mental conditions held by the people around her made her bipolar disorder much tougher to deal with growing up.
The article, which Yang pitched to Huffington Post back in February, was posted with very minimal changes on May 1.
However, Yang was shocked to notice that her piece included a very misleading subheading that blamed her parents and Asian culture for her decades of pain.
In an interview with NextShark, the 37-year-old mental health advocate shared how devastating it was to be misrepresented in a piece that took her many years to finally have the courage to write.
“I had been anxiously counting down the days to the story’s publication. I checked first thing in the morning and saw it from my computer, so I did not see the subheading, which was visible from mobile devices only. I shared the article on my Facebook from the laptop and it wasn’t until later when I clicked on the link from my phone that I first saw the subheading. My jaw dropped, my heart sank and I immediately contacted my editor.”
Yang pointed out that the offensive subheading caused her immense anxiety as it could turn all her efforts to nothing.
“(I was) worried that it was alienating the readers I wanted to reach the most: Asian Americans who were experiencing mental health challenges. I worried about the long term negative impact on my reputation because the subheading was attributed to me in first-person.”
She was, however, overwhelmed with the support she received from netizens and the writing community.
“I was bowled over by the support of powerful authors like Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Jenny Han, and Lauren Hough.”
The former marketing manager revealed that she began advocating for mental health awareness back in February, “after hiding [her] condition for decades.”
“I had been considering coming out with my diagnosis in order to be a vocal advocate for mental health awareness for years but was always hesitant for fear of putting my career in jeopardy,” she noted.“This decision to come out was years in the making, ever since I started facilitating a support group for a nonprofit, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), years ago.”
In writing the piece for Huffington Post, Yang said she worked with a female editor of color who was “kind and encouraging throughout the process.”
“I went as far as to print her acceptance email and framed it for motivation because it was the first piece of professional validation I had received for my writing and she had been so touchingly complimentary. I was extra blindsided when all this happened,” she added.
She explained that very little was edited in the body of the story, including the title which she wrote herself.
“It was only the subheading that was completely created by HuffPost without my consultation or review.”
Upon seeing the racist subheading, Yang immediately contacted her editor but received an automated reply.
“I received her out of office message, so I wrote to the deputy editor. I was grateful when they both wrote back within hours and agreed to change the subheading. Beyond relieved, I continued to share the story, trusting that it would be fixed soon.”
However, the subheading remained unchanged so she continued to write to the deputy editor about it.
“Each day she tried to help, but the subheading continued to appear online.”
Five days later, the subheading was still online.
“I couldn’t take another sleepless night. I needed to take more direct action. I wrote the editor letting her know I was going public, requesting again for the line to be removed immediately and to print a correction, the wording for which I provided.”
Yang then took to Twitter on Sunday night to share her ordeal which went viral overnight. By Monday morning, her tweet had reached over a million people and it had been retweeted over 5,000 times.
It did not take long for her to receive an email from the editorial director and the issue was resolved by mid-day on Monday with a published correction. While she also received an apology, it was made in private and not included in the correction.
“Despite all the controversy, I was humbled and inspired to receive many notes from readers who appreciated my very vulnerable and personal story, letting me know that it gave them comfort for their own struggles,” Yang said. “After it is all said and done, I would do everything again to reach those readers.”
Michelle Yang is a writer and mental health advocate who can be found pouring out her heart at her blog: www.livingwellhappily.com. She has a memoir-in-progress about living well with bipolar disorder and is a lifestyle editor for Mochi magazine. Learn more by following her on Facebook and Instagram @michelleyangwriter.